Though there is plenty of competition, these are some of the most arrogant words ever uttered by an American president. ~Michael Gerson

Gerson should know a thing or two about arrogant words uttered by Presidents, since he was responsible for writing some of the most insanely presumptuous and hubristic presidential statements of the last fifty years. So it’s a bit rich to hear Gerson tell us about the political dangers of presidential arrogance. That’s not what interests me about Gerson’s article and the avalanche of commentary that has followed the report of Obama’s statement. What I find remarkable is how thoroughly Obama’s critics misunderstand him.

Obama is expressing the bewilderment of someone who has made the mistake of thinking that voters normally behave rationally and then stop behaving rationally when they are under pressure. Obama may be an “intellectual snob” in some respects, but his statement about scared voters doesn’t tell us this. The problem isn’t that Obama attributes irrationality to voters now. His mistake came from attributing rationality to voters in the past. This is an easy mistake to make: “the people” are wise and intelligent when they agree with me, and have become inexplicably dense when they do not.

What is odd is that Obama seems to think that voters were not scared and were “thinking clearly” in the wake of the financial crisis (when arguably very few people were thinking clearly), but have become unduly fearful in the years since then, and he compounds the error by assuming that the public has well-defined policy preferences that can only be obscured or blocked by fear. Obama actually makes the same mistake that conservative pundits have been making all year, which is the mistake of identifying voter behavior in terms of ideological content and support for or opposition to a policy agenda. The difference is that Obama believes that 2008 represented a vote for his agenda, while the conservative pundits assume that 2010 is a vote against his agenda, when the truth is that his agenda has been more or less irrelevant to the dynamics of both elections.

Voting ideologically or voting on policy is not the way most voters vote, which is maddening to political observers, activists and politicians who are trying to make some sense out of the indecipherable mish-mash of contradictory preferences the majority presents to them. If one makes the reasonable, mistaken assumption that 2008 was a positive endorsement of the agenda Obama campaigned on, the current political situation doesn’t make much sense. After all, Obama largely did more or less what he said he would do, and in thanks for largely keeping his campaign promises his party is about to be badly punished. To the extent that he has disappointed anyone, as every politican inevitably will, it is progressives who have every right to complain that they have been shortchanged.

Gerson’s reaction and feigned outrage are typical of conservative pundits who have concluded on the basis of no evidence that the public’s expression of economic anxiety and discontent have some discernible ideological meaning, and further that this meaning is undeniably in line with a debt-slashing austerity agenda. Obama and the conservative pundits are all trying to give voters credit for careful deliberation and sober decision-making at some point, which is what politicians and activists have to do if they want to avoid offending large numbers of voters. Obama’s critics naturally want to say that Obama is insulting the intelligence of the voters, but all that he is saying is that he thinks voters really are intelligent and must be confused if they want to vote in what Obama must think is a foolish, destructive way. This is more or less what Obama’s opponents believed about Obama voters in the fall of 2008. Far from being some revelation of Obama’s character, his statement doesn’t amount to much more than a claim that he believes voters are misguided if they vote for Republicans, which is presumably what most Democrats believe. It is also what most Republicans believe about Democratic voters.

As usual, the truth about Obama is that he is not as exceptional or strange or different or unprecedented as everyone wants him to be in one way or another. He is a conventional center-left Democrat who thinks supporting Republican politicians at the polls is a mistake, and just like every Republican who tears up about our supposedly “center-right country” Obama assumes that the majority would normally be on his side were it not for extraordinary circumstances.