In the immediate aftermath of Tuesday's midterm elections, the narrative of choice among the pundit class is that the GOP victories — 60 House seats, six Senate seats — indicate a "referendum on Obama's policies." Not only is this a theme all over the cable news networks, but on Thursday morning, Ohio Congressman John Boehner, the next speaker of the House, issued a statement saying, "President Obama must decide whether he will heed the will of the people and work with us to address their concerns, or continue on a path the people have rejected."
It's a good story, this one about the people striking back against Obama's policy decisions, especially if you're a Republican commentator champing at the bit to make Obama a one-term president.
The only problem is that it's not true.
In the direct lead-up to Nov. 2, two polls emerged that didn't actually ask for whom people planned on voting, and yet anyone who saw them knew that the Republicans were going to win huge come Election Day. The first was from The New York Times, which found that fewer than one out of every 10 Americans knew that President Obama had actually cut their taxes. This from an article titled, "From Obama, the Tax Cut Nobody Heard Of":
In a troubling sign for Democrats as they head into the midterm elections, their signature tax cut of the past two years, which decreased income taxes by up to $400 a year for individuals and $800 for married couples, has gone largely unnoticed. In a New York Times/CBS News Poll last month, fewer than one in 10 respondents knew that the Obama administration had lowered taxes for most Americans. Half of those polled said they thought that their taxes had stayed the same, a third thought that their taxes had gone up, and about a tenth said they did not know.
It was a troubling indication of the electorate's ignorance, and a few days later, Bloomberg Businessweek had more bad news:
A Bloomberg National Poll conducted Oct. 24-26 finds that by a two-to-one margin, likely voters in the Nov. 2 midterm elections think taxes have gone up, the economy has shrunk, and the billions lent to banks as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program won't be recovered.
In fact, during his brief tenure, Obama has cut taxes by $240 billion, the economy has grown and the government expects to make a profit off of the TARP funds. And yet Bloomberg Businessweek reports, "[b]y 52 percent to 19 percent, likely voters say federal income taxes have gone up for the middle class in the past two years." Also, lest you think the Tea Party, anti-tax zealots have their thumbs on the scale on this one, consider this: 43 percent of Democrats also believe Obama has raised taxes for the middle class.
More than half of Americans mistakenly believe the overhaul will raise taxes for most people this year, an Associated Press poll finds. But that would be true only if most people were devoted to indoor tanning, which got hit with a sales tax.
These are important statistics, specifically because we're in the immediate wake of an election in which the overwhelming majority of voters said the economy was their number one concern. That may have been so, of course, but it turns out that most voters were also sadly in the dark about what's actually happening with the economy. Their fear trumps their knowledge, and historically, that has opened up a dangerous disparity.
Why the electorate is so blind to the truth about the president is anyone's guess, though I suspect it's largely because of poor marketing on the administration's part and even poorer coverage in the media, which often choose to focus on mosques near ground zero rather than complex governmental policy. Regardless, the ultimate point is that, just as it would be ridiculous for me to disparage a restaurant at which I've never eaten, we can't proclaim that we've seen a referendum on Obama's policies if most voters have no idea what those policies are.
This is something we've known at least since Churchill said the best argument against democracy is five minutes with the average voter. On many occasions, people vote with their hearts and their fears, not their heads and their informed choices. And I'd venture to guess that some people even vote for things out of hatred for African Americans or whites or gays or whomever, factors that have nothing to do with how best to improve America's common good.
Tuesday wasn't a referendum on Obama. It was a nation of worried, increasingly poor people walking into voting booths and praying that someone, anyone, will help them stop worrying about their mortgages and fill their refrigerators with food again. I'm not sure anyone can say whether those fear-based emotions are right or wrong, but we can say with certainty that terrified emotionality rarely leads to precise perception.
Cord Jefferson is a staff writer for The Root. Follow him on Twitter.