What Has President Obama Done to Deserve Your Vote?
I visit Santa Monica, California, one of the most liberal towns in America, and ask passersby a simple question regarding President Obama.
It’s a fairly common broadcast news standby: the vox populi (latin: voice of the people) “man on the street” interview, an unrehearsed answer given by an unselected member of the general public. Under journalistic standards, this does not even constitute a meaningful survey – after all, the participants are not truly random and unselected - they are self-selected, a huge bias.
A bias, in Santa Monica. Bias squared. I couldn’t resist.
Is there a point (besides fun)? Yes. Straight surveys, the kind we see on cable news channels – Rasmussen, Gallup, Zogby – give us statistically precise answers to carefully crafted questions. But we only get a number. The information we can garner from that number is as limited as a one-dimensional point. Our brains are designed to process complex, multifaceted data intuitively – and that includes fleeting information impossible to capture in a Rasmussen poll, however “scientifically” vetted: facial expressions, a pause, a question before the answer, body language. Despite the inherent unscientific and nature and tiny numbers of the vox technique, we may see and hear what Gallup didn’t tell us.
Santa Monica is located in California’s 30th congressional district, which has a Cook PVI of D +20. PVI stands for Partisan Voting Index, and Santa Monica’s index means that a political candidate from the Democratic Party can typically expect to beat his or her Republican opponent by an average of twenty percentage points. Given this, it’s not surprising that the 30th district is represented by Democrat Henry Waxman and in 2008 they chose Barack Obama for president over his opponent by a 7-to-3 ratio (70.4 percent for Obama, 27.9 percent for McCain). Almost one in four Santa Monica residents holds a graduate degree (23.8 percent) making it one of the most highly educated towns in the country. The average family income is $109,410 per year.
The plan was to visit the Third Street Promenade around 2:00 PM on a Saturday afternoon and ask random passersby, “Would you like to answer one question about President Obama?” Those who agreed would be asked, “What has President Obama done to deserve your vote?”
A total of eighty nine people were approached, not counting those who self-selected by dodging out of the way before we could ask anything. Seventeen people agreed to answer the main question, or slightly less than one in five. All seventeen people who answered appear in the video.
We would have preferred to talk to more people but the battery on my new Canon HFR21 camcorder depleted faster than expected, approaching zero after only forty five minutes. We were using a hand-held mic plugged directly into the camera without a pre-amp, so this may have contributed to the quick battery drain.
Nevertheless, we had some fun and got some interesting results.
Out of the seventeen people who answered, fourteen confirmed they would vote to re-elect Obama – about 82 percent, significantly higher than the percentage who voted for him in 2008. This was likely the result of the self-selection process. Most of the people who chose to answer our question brightened their expressions when they heard the words “President Obama.”
The single most common reason Santa Monicans gave for giving Obama their vote was personal qualities: honesty, patience, conduct, his smile, his greatness, his wonderfulness. Six people cited person qualities and five people (29 percent) cited those qualities as their sole reason for supporting Obama’s re-election, without offering any examples of how those qualities manifested or otherwise improved the quality of President Obama’s governance.
The next most popular reasons were the passage of the health care bill (three) and ordering the military strike that killed Osama bin Laden (three).
Only two people out of seventeen (12 percent) cited the economy, buttressing that with their perception that the economy was improving, of course.
Other reasons cited (one time each) were gays serving openly in the military, party affiliation, free college tuition, and race.
If we categorize the “helping me with my college tuition” with the health care bill, four people (24 percent) cited the receipt of “free” goods and services as a reason they will vote to re-elect President Obama.
Is the Economy Improving?
At the time of the video, late February 2012, all leading economic indicators were flat with the exception of “reported” unemployment rate, which had decreased modestly to 8.5 percent from a reported rate of 9.5 percent one year before. But this is only a “reported” rate because it defines unemployed in a specific manner that does not include each adult who could be employed but is not.
The official US government unemployment rate is calculated monthly based on a survey undertaken by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Bureau defines unemployment precisely as follows:
- People with jobs are employed.
- People who are jobless, looking for jobs, and available for work are unemployed.
- People who are neither employed nor unemployed are not in the labor force.
As you can see, if someone is out of work and they are not explicitly looking for work (interviewing, sending out resumés, scanning the Internet for a job) they are considered “not in the labor force” and hence they are not counted as unemployed.
People can and do leave the labor force by not actively looking for work, and when they do they decrease the reported unemployment rate even though they have not found a job and no one has been hired.
The US government does not count someone as “unemployed” if they meet one of the following four criteria:
- They believe no job is available to them in their line of work or area.
- They had previously been unable to find work.
- They lack the necessary schooling, training, skills, or experience.
- Employers think they are too young or too old, or they face some other type of discrimination.
Among the marginally attached, there were 1.1 million discouraged workers in January, little different from a year earlier.
US Bureau of Labor Statistics report for February 3, 2012
The Bureau also reported that there were 2.8 million persons “marginally” attached to the workforce, again “essentially unchanged from a year earlier. That yields a total of 3.9 million people who are not working yet they are not counted in the reported unemployment rate, a figure that the government says has not improved over the last year.
Since the government reports there are 12.8 million unemployed, if we add to that 3.9 million discouraged or marginally attached workers, this yields a true unemployment rate of 11.1 percent. That figure does not account for people who are employed part-time but who would prefer to be full-time.
These figures are especially disheartening if we recall that the original “stimulus” program, advocated by President Obama as necessary if we wished to keep the unemployment rate below eight percent, was passed three years ago at a cost of nearly one trillion dollars.
By the government’s own figures and the President’s words, the economy is not improving and anyone would be hard-pressed to justify voting for the President’s re-election on economic grounds.
Want My Vote? Gimme Some Free Stuff
Personally, the answer that got my gourd more than any other was that people were planning to vote for Obama on the grounds that he gave them “free” goods and services – in three answers, “free” or “universal” health care, and for one respondent, “free” college tuition.
Our nascent nation was warned of this over two hundred years ago by Benjamin Franklin, Alexis de Tocqueville and other commentators. The danger of democracy was that some voters – a few at first and then in increasing numbers – would begin to see government as a means of obtaining “free” goods and services – free to themselves, that is, but of course paid for from the taxes of their countrymen. Less-than-scrupulous politicians would take advantage of this desire for something-for-nothing and promise voters more and more “free” goodies paid for from the public till, until the purpose of the government became redistribution-of-wealth and the economy collapsed.
Our economy may some day spin out of control for one reason or another, and it’s tough for people to accept that they won’t be able to receive the expected freebies while so many others continue to feed from the government trough. And that’s the problem: everyone believes that their personal needs exceed that of others, so “their program” is the one that must not be taken away.
The American founders had a solution for this: personal responsibility. It’s hard to believe that a healthy, well-educated, young person could stand in one of the most affluent communities in the world and declare that he or she requires other people to pay their medical or educational expenses. Why can’t they do it themselves? Do they really think it’s right to expect other people to work for a paycheck and then part with some of that paycheck in order to meet someone else’s health care expenses (including birth control expenses) and their tuition for their classes in Wymen’s Studies?
This is not an issue of compassion. These folks don’t expect their neighbors to pay their hospital bills so they can get needed treatment. They expect their neighbors to pay their hospital bills so they can afford a trip to Maui.
Obama and Osama
Three people, all male, cited the killing of Osama bin Laden as justification for voting for President Obama’s re-election. They did not cite any other reason.
It’s true that President Obama did order the military operation that killed Osama, at huge risk of national embarrassment if the mission failed. Remember Desert One, April 1980, the aborted mission to rescue the diplomatic hostages held in Iran? Jimmy Carter took the fall for ordering that operation. Operation Geronimo was no less risky.
Some conservatives have said that the information that led us to bin Laden’s hideout was obtained through aggressive interrogation methods, such as water boarding, which Obama has steadfastly opposed. This is possible, but it is unknown and there is no means to prove it, as the information is classified and will likely remain so for quite some time.
However, there is no question that as a US Senator, President Obama opposed the presence of the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan and in 2007 he voted against funding President Bush’s troop surge. Senator Obama did not favor continued American military operations in the Middle East – he was in favor of rapid demilitarization and the return of US troops as early as possible – a strategy, if it had been enacted, that would have left Osama bin Laden alive and communicating and possibly reacquiring influence.
What I Didn’t Expect
I was surprised that such a high proportion of respondents emphasized what they perceived as President Obama’s favorable personal qualities – honesty, patience, general overall greatness – as their justification for their vote, and that five out of six did not offer any other reason outside of personal qualities. I could understand this response four years ago, when Senator Obama was relatively new to the national scene, but it’s hard to fathom after three years of holding the office of the president.
I was also surprised such a high proportion of passersby (more than 80-percent) had nothing to say about the President. This being Santa Monica, I expected to find a larger fan base and more people eager to provide input. I believe this was due to people who were disappointed with Obama’s presidency deselecting themselves (and many of those where probably disappointed that he was not liberal enough).
The results of the 2012 presidential election will hinge on independent voters. To a large, degree these voters lack a strong interest in politics, are non-ideological, and obtain most of their information from the mainstream news media. As a result, most of their perceptions are shaped by that media – and the demographics, income level, and political beliefs of most top news corespondents and editors are a close match to the people we found walking the streets of Santa Monica. Will the independents base their vote on perceptions formed after hearing, repeatedly, that President Obama is an honest and great man, the economy is improving, and he will give us free stuff? For the sake of the American experiment, I hope not.