"You Just Don't Get It": The most popular put-down of the 2010 campaign so far.

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July 7 2010 7:30 PM

"You Just Don't Get It"

The most popular put-down of the 2010 campaign so far.

President Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

Do you get it? It is the question of the 2010 campaign so far, and the answer is always the same: no. "Republican leaders in Washington just don't get it," President Obama said this weekend after the GOP senators voted to block an extension of unemployment benefits. During the House debate last week over financial services reform, Mike Pence, the Republican conference chairman, criticized the Democrats: "When you look at this legislation, it is proof positive again that this majority just doesn't get it." In Arizona, backers of the state's controversial immigration law are selling T-shirts that read: "The President Just Doesn't Get It." When the Justice Department announced Tuesday that it would file suit to overturn the law, Rep. Harry Mitchell of Arizona responded, "The only thing this lawsuit will do is demonstrate to Arizonans that Washington still doesn't get it."

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Voters are angry this election year. A recent Washington Post poll showed that only 29 percent of Americans said they would support their House representative in November, even lower than before the historic 1994 election. Politicians who claim their opponents "don't get it" hope to stoke that anger into rage: The politician disappointing you does so not because he's incompetent, but because he doesn't care what you say. This is the animating sentiment behind the Tea Party movement. "The government doesn't want to hear us," said one protester at an Obama health care rally in Iowa earlier this year in the final days of the health care debate. "We have to make them listen."

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Both sides are focusing on highlighting just how bad the other party is in part because they can't satisfy voter anger by talking about solutions. People aren't in a mood to believe in promises from Washington. And, for different reasons, neither party has much to say. Democrats can't excite people with the programs they've passed. Only 33 percent of those asked in a recent Pew poll think the stimulus bill has helped create jobs. Health care reform is getting more popular, but even in the most optimistic polls, fewer than 50 percent of respondents view it favorably. Republicans aren't offering detailed solutions because they have made a tactical decision to stay vague about what they would actually do if they took control. They don't want to offend anyone, and they'd prefer this election be a referendum on unpopular Democratic programs.

If politicians can't recognize problems, how can they solve them? That question was at the center of the charge Obama made last week in Wisconsin when he criticized House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, for seeming to compare the financial crisis to an insect. "If the Republican leader is that out of touch with the struggles facing the American people, he should come here to Racine and ask people if they think the financial crisis was an ant." Those who aren't out of touch don't hear you because they are compromised. When the Senate was debating a version of the financial reform bill, the president charged that the Senate Republican leader was ignoring the obvious benefits of the legislation because he was beholden to the Wall Street bankers he was courting for campaign donations.

Democrats charge willful incompetence. Republicans blame arrogance. For months, Republican leaders have peppered their public statements on a range of issues with the charge that the president and Democratic leaders are so ideological they are deaf to the outcry from the public. "Americans want us to listen to them on health care," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., during the health care debate. "They've been telling us so for an entire year. Incredibly, our friends on the other side still don't seem to get it. But Americans see what's going on. And that's why they'll reject this bill again."