A President Who Is Hearing Things

A President Who Is Hearing Things

By Richard Benedetto - November 12, 2014

President Obama begrudgingly said, "I hear you," to those who voted, and to those who didn't, after last week's elections in which he and his Democratic Party took a drubbing.

But did he really hear, or are his once finely tuned political ears tone-deaf from too many cheers from his adoring supporters? 

The president translated what he heard into a simple message:  They want Washington “to get the job done,” which he defined as end the partisan gridlock and get more legislation passed.

That is partially true. But if wholly true, why didn’t voters throw the Republicans out?  Obama and the Democrats spent the past four years hammering the GOP as obstructionists and “the party of no” for blocking their initiatives and for being the embodiment of evil in partisan politics.

But as nearly everyone knows now, the GOP won control of the Senate, took its majority in the House to near-historic levels, and made sweeping gains in Democratic strongholds from governors’ mansions to state legislatures.

The stunning results dumbfounded the president and Democratic strategists, who pressed the narrative of a gridlocked Washington in the vise grip of Republican extremists.  Democrats tried to define and frame Republicans as:

-          Opposed to the president’s policies in general and social welfare programs in particular (racist)

-          Worried about the economy (dumb, since statistics show it’s getting better)

-          Opposed to abortion rights or in favor of limiting them (anti-women)

-          Not supporters of same-sex marriage (homophobic)

-          Backing tougher border enforcement and opposing amnesty or more rights for illegal aliens (anti-immigrant)

-          Supporting more-aggressive U.S. leadership and military action in the Middle East or against Russia (warmongers)

-          Siding with Israel or backing tougher surveillance of terrorists in the U.S. (anti-Muslim)

-          White males who vote Republican (all of the above); Southern white males who vote Republican (bigots)  

-          Skeptical of climate change (deniers)

      It didn’t work. Over the past week, reams were written and countless words chattered on TV and radio trying to analyze what went wrong. We were pelted with explanations ranging from the cliché (this was an anti-incumbent, throw-the-bums-out election) to the simplistic (the electoral map favored Republicans this year and black voters punished Democratic candidates who refused to campaign with Obama).

While some of those explanations might have merit, what happened was far more intricate.   There was a lot of anger, a lack of confidence in government and general unease in this year’s vote. And most of it broke the Republicans’ way.

One way of explaining what happened is as a confluent reincarnation of the Nixon era Silent Majority, 1980s Reagan Democrats, 1990s angry white males and the John Does and Mr. Smiths of Hollywood fame who want their dignity, their confidence and their country back from the elites whom they feel hijacked it. 

No one likes to be called names or bullied, especially when you feel the label is not justified or just plain mean.  So when you get the chance, you strike back.  That could be much of what happened on Election Day.  People went out and said stop -- stop telling me I’m a bad person or an extremist because I have certain moral, religious or political beliefs that don’t agree with yours.

And it wasn’t just Republicans who might have felt this way.  A majority of independents also voted Republican, according to exit polls.  Also, more Democrats voted Republican than Republicans voted Democrat.    

Exit polls further showed that two of three voters in last week’s election said the country was going in the wrong direction; 69 percent of them voted Republican. Voters who defined the economy as the most important issue also voted heavily Republican. So did those worried about foreign affairs, another terrorist attack and the government’s response to Ebola and illegal immigration. 

Protestants and Catholics, who made up more than three-fourths of the electorate, voted overwhelmingly Republican. The same went for those who attend church weekly.

Moreover, married people (more than half of the electorate) voted Republican. And the usual gender gap was much smaller this year. While 57 percent of men voted Republican, so did nearly half of all women, 47 percent.  What does that say about the “war on women”?

All this is not to say that voters now love the Republican Party or think it has the answers to all their problems. Exit polls further showed that most who voted Tuesday had an unfavorable view of both parties. Yet, one in four with an unfavorable view of the GOP still voted Republican, twice as many as those with an unfavorable view of the Democrats voted Democratic.   That suggests that they have more confidence in Republicans this time, or that they were just fed up with Obama and the Democrats.  

In sum, the American people are not as dumb and as easily fooled or led as some political elites think they are.  And since most Americans are not political people, they tend to behave like sleeping giants. But when awakened, look out.  Obama and the Democrats learned that the hard way this year.

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches politics and journalism at American University and in The Fund for American Studies at George Mason University. You can follow him on Twitter at @benedettopress.


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