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It's the Psyche, Stupid

Barack Obama knows how and when to play the Compassion Card

Next presidential cycle take my advice and ignore the pollsters and pundits. Instead consult psychologists. They know better why voters behave the way they do.

As any psychologist will tell you these days, America’s voters are more interested in feelings than jobs, taxes, and the national debt.

As an historian of mental health that’s the conclusion I too drew from Barack Obama’s decisive victory on November 6. What likely won him the election was his ability to convince Americans he was more caring than Mitt Romney.

Love him or hate him, let’s take a deep breath and confront the facts about Mitt Romney. Up to the last week of October he had momentum. Polls reported his share of the popular vote was greater than the incumbent president’s, and the gap appeared to be growing.

The Democrats kept on citing Republicans’ ill-considered comments about rape and abortion, but if people were upset about these utterances the polls didn’t reflect it.

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Romney was whittling away at Obama’s lead in crucial swing states Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Obama’s supporters must have been muttering to themselves “it shouldn’t be this hard.”

Yet on election night Obama was a clear winner. What happened?

Superstorm Sandy happened, that’s what. And the president whom some cynics call America’s “therapist-in-chief” took center stage.

After it crashed into the eastern seaboard on October 29 a nation watched as Sandy devastated much of New Jersey, New York City, and Long Island. Sandy killed 100 people and left millions without power.

Obama and Romney stopped campaigning and the president, garbed in a wind-breaker and sturdy shoes, visited recovery efforts in storm-struck communities. “We are here for you and we will not forget” he told residents of affected areas. Cameras caught him hugging and consoling distraught victims.

The media lauded Obama for his compassion and caring, drawing numerous invidious distinctions between him and former president George W. Bush whose response to hurricane Katrina in 2005 struck many as insensitive.

After Sandy hit Mitt Romney never had a chance. He appeared at food banks but looking like a psychological healer isn’t his forte. You get the distinct impression that talking about his empathy for other people makes Romney uncomfortable.

Romney’s whole image was based on his ability to manage corporations, governments, and Olympic games. In a race reduced to compassion, Romney’s experience and stand on the issues were useless.

Obama’s team on the other hand has always depicted him as a figure of hope and healing, a spiritual symbol of a future in which a polarized nation becomes one.

In 2012 the strategy worked. A CBS exit poll found that over 40 per cent of voters cited Obama’s handling of the Sandy situation as either “important” or the decisive factor in their decision.

Unabashed Obama fan Chris Matthews of MSNBC admitted on election night that “I’m so glad we had that storm last week.” In the face of howls of protests, he hastily added “not in terms of hurting people.” The storm was “good politics.” And he was right. Obama and the Democrats couldn’t have been happier.

I’m not blaming Obama for playing the compassion card. He’s good at it. His campaign was smart enough to exploit a situation for votes. What other candidate running for office wouldn’t do the same thing?

And it’s not that compassion first reared its head in 2012 or that Obama is the first elected official in history to use it to his or her advantage. From George H.W. Bush’s “Thousand points of light” in 1988, to Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain,” to George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” in 2000, appeals to feelings have played big roles in previous elections.

But the combination of Sandy and the 2012 election may be the most graphic example of how a political contest can turn so decisively due to a candidate’s ability to project a caring image. 2012 was supposed to be about jobs and the financial future of the country, like 1992 when Bill Clinton’s team rallied around the message “it’s the economy, stupid.”

In future a better phrase to describe US politics is “it’s the psyche, stupid.”

Ian Robert Dowbiggin, Ph.D., is an academic historian and professor of history at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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