The Obama campaign has begun to frame 2012 election as a question of which candidate voters can trust. But focusing on trustworthiness would appear be a risky strategy for the Obama camp. The Obama administration has on it’s hands an economy staggering under the weight of failed attempts at centralized control. In addition, there are daily reports coming out on the Benghazi attacks that cast doubt not only the competence of the administration to protect our troops in harm’s way but also on its very truthfulness.
Trust is not an entitlement; it has to be built. And when it comes to building trust with the electorate, it might be fair to say, “Obama didn’t build that.”
Trust has a number of facets, and they all come into play in the realm of politics. One of the simplest elements of trust has to do with competence, the ability to deliver what one has advertised. Obama has not only failed to deliver on his promises to cut the deficit and to reduce employment, the economy is in worse shape now than when he took office.
Voters may be disappointed or even annoyed when their trust in a candidate’s competence has been violated, but the appearance of hypocrisy triggers a deeper and more emotionally charged reaction. Building trust requires consistency between words and actions, between the values that one espouses and the way one actually behaves. Voters expect a certain amount of moral posturing from any political candidate and are usually willing to overlook minor failings as evidence that politicians are human like the rest of us. But once a politician crosses the line between normal failings and the appearance of hypocrisy, the sense of betrayal on the part of voters is intense.
In The Hope and the Change, an important new film by director Stephen K. Bannon, we hear the personal stories of people who were excited by what they heard from Obama in 2008 and who trusted him not just with their votes, but also with their hopes.
The beginning of the film captures the early Obama mystique with the fast pace and visual power that have become Bannon’s trademark. Watching the film’s treatment of the 2008 campaign, the passion Obama aroused in his supporters and the sense of his inevitability become more and more palpable with each moment. Listening to the stories of these Obama voters as they describe those days, we hear more than just a decision to vote for one candidate instead of another candidate. These are people who believed in Obama, they trusted him to do what he said he was going to do. And they believed that he was somehow a new breed of politician, one they had been waiting for.
It is noteworthy that the dozens of people interviewed for the film do not come across as hardcore leftists or political activists who would continue to support Obama at all costs. But neither do they come across as true swing voters who were initially on the fence between McCain and Obama. These are liberal-leaning voters who are receptive to the idea of big government intervention, and so their eventual disillusionment with Obama comes across as especially significant as Election Day approaches.
And the disillusionment of these Obama voters only begins with the failure to deliver on the advertised economic promises. The worsening of the debt crisis and the continuing high levels of unemployment do come into play, but the disillusionment of these voters goes beyond recognition of the fact that Obama did not do what he said he would do. The emotional intensity of these stories comes from the fact that Obama did not seem to be who he said he was. The lavish vacations while the typical family income was dropping, the expensive and frequent golf holidays while millions of Americans were looking for work, and the enjoyment of his newfound celebrity status damaged Obama in the eyes of his former supporters in ways that mere failure could not.
Conservative viewers of The Hope and the Change might actually feel torn as they watch the personal stories of people who wanted so much to trust Obama. One the one hand, it is tempting to say these voters should not have fallen for the media hype about Obama in the first place. On the other hand, their candor in admitting that they were taken in is admirable and refreshing, especially in the face of continuing efforts by Obama’s hardcore supporters to paint Obama as a turnaround artist who just needs for the country to trust him one more time.
In a fundamental sense, Obama is right in saying that this election is a question about which candidate the voters can trust. In fact, the 2012 election might well be decided by people who voted for Obama in 2008 and who have the courage to admit that what they thought they were getting is not what they got.