“They cling to guns or religion.” (April 2008.) Trying to explain why he was having difficulty getting traction with small-town and working-class Americans, Obama blamed the effect of hard economic times. Taken either in context or out of context doesn’t change the meaning: people who believe something different from Barack Obama do so because they are irrational.
“If you like the [health insurance] plan you have, you can keep it.” (June 2009.) This didn’t come back to bite him until early 2014, when insurance companies started cancelling “sub-standard” policies that many of the policy-holders said suited them just fine. There is no way to spin this one other than a) he was lying all along, or b) he didn’t understand his own plan.
“The Cambridge Police acted stupidly.” (July 2009.) Taken out of context, the quote sounds bad, like he was prejudging the case after confessing his ignorance of the facts. In context, it still doesn’t sound good because the police had arrested Henry Gates for “disorderly conduct,” not for breaking and entering, and because he linked it to historic patterns. He seemed to be trying to have his cake and eat it too.
Iraq is “sovereign, stable, and self-reliant.” (December 2011.) This came back to bite him in mid-2014. Seen in context, however, it was more of a prediction of what Iraqis could make of the situation left to them by the Americans. Almost immediately, however, Maliki and the Shi’ites began to mess-up everything.
“If you’ve got a business. you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” (July 2012.) Torn from its context, the quote sounds worse than it was. Obama sought to emphasize the importance of social capital and infrastructure in fostering economic growth. However, one wonders if he doesn’t believe that all economic growth comes from public initiative, rather than from a combination of social context and private initiative. This suspicion is reinforced by his declaration in the same talk that “Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.” In fact, the early form of the internet grew out of the cooperation of several nations with scholarly researchers for reasons unrelated to commerce. The current internet is largely a product of entrepreneurial initiative.
ISIS is a “JV team.” (January 2014.) The President tried to walk this one back by claiming that he was talking about a whole bunch of Islamist groups in the Middle East in general, and not about ISIS in particular. Politico.com fact-checked the White House claim and assigned it four Pinocchios.
Russia is” just a regional power.” (March 2014.) What the President said was “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors — not out of strength but out of weakness.” Here he was pushing back against a Republican claim that Mitt Romney’s assertion in the 2012 Presidential debates that Russia was the most import geopolitical foe had been correct all along. The President may be correct, but Russia is a “regional power” in the states of the former Soviet Union, in the Far East, in Europe, and—increasingly—in the Middle East.
Some of these “gaffes” are the product of circumstances changing after he made the statement (Iraq). Some reflect his now-evident failings as an administrator (health insurance). Some are conjured up by his opponents (business). Some spring from his habit of trash-talking people who disagree with him (voters, ISIS, Russia). He’s better when he stays on script.