How Anti-Obama Myths Get Started

Don’t know if you’ve followed or even joined in on the debate over the president’s proposal that the United States adopt mandatory voting like Australia and other countries. Fox News is really going to town on this one. CNN’s Holly Yan teed it up for critics with this comment:

The president whose major policy achievement is mandatory health insurance thinks maybe voting should be mandatory, too.

Trouble is, it didn’t happen, unless you really want to put words in Obama’s mouth. Here’s the transcript of the Q&A where the subject of mandatory voting came up, after a fairly long disquisition on Citizens United and other Supreme Court decisions that keep the federal government from restricting political money:

I gave a speech down in Selma at the 50th anniversary that was incredibly moving for me and my daughters, and the notion that this day and age we would be deliberately trying to restrict the franchise makes no sense. And at the state and local levels, that’s — you can push back against that, and make sure that we’re expanding the franchise, not restricting it.

In Australia, and some other countries, there’s mandatory voting. It would be transformative if everybody voted. That would counteract money more than anything. If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country, because the people who tend not to vote are young; they’re lower income; they’re skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups; and they’re often the folks who are — they’re scratching and climbing to get into the middle class. And they’re working hard, and there’s a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls. We should want to get them into the polls. So that may end up being a better strategy in the short term.

Obama is pretty clearly talking about more people–eventually all people–voting as a way to counteract money in politics, and just mentions mandatory voting as an aside. If you don’t believe me, consider that earlier in the answer and in the next breath he talks about how difficult it would be to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Since mandatory voting would most definitely require a constitutional amendment, it makes zero sense that he’s substitute one politically impossible measure for another, even if you parse his actual words very differently than I do.

But unfortunately, an AP reporter covering the event in Cleveland where this exchange occurred conflated his reference to Australia with his commenets about the “transformative” effect of more people voting, and we were off to the races. You’d think it might have occurred to said reporter–and to others repeating this nonsense about Obama “proposing” mandatory voting–that if he was going to make a serious argument for completely changing our voting system, he’d probably do it somewhere other than at the end of a Q&A following a poorly covered speech in Cleveland. But I guess a lot of other anti-Obama myths get started with a lot less raw material.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.