One of the questions I’ve wanted to ask, in the aftermath of President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” speech: Do President Obama and his smug bureaucrats respect their own their successes, even as the president clearly devalues what entrepreneurs and business people have contributed to our country?
Since one encounters these self-satisfied types all the time in Washington, my first answer would have: Yes. Going to the right schools is just so much more important than taking a wagon train across the plains to found a town or opening a mom and pop business in the Midwest. Or that is what I would have thought they believed.
But James Taranto has an absolutely riveting piece in the Wall Street Journal that challenges my initial reaction. What the president was really saying is that entrepreneurs haven’t earned their success. Taranto writes of the president, “Unearned success is the central theme of [President Obama’s] life story.”
Let's run through the list of Obama's achievements.
"The Harvard Law Review, generally considered the most prestigious in the country, elected the first black president in its 104-year history today," the New York Times reported Feb. 6, 1990. Obama himself understood his election to be a product not of unusual ability but of luck: "It's important that stories like mine aren't used to say that everything is O.K. for blacks," he told the Times. "You have to remember that for every one of me, there are hundreds or thousands of black students with at least equal talent who don't get a chance."
He was lucky to be privileged and he was lucky to be black. But for the former, in his own telling, he never would have had the opportunity. But for the latter, his election would scarcely have been noticed outside Harvard Yard.
President Obama is obviously a bright and talented man and a historic figure, but his meteoric rise to the most powerful office in the world may have left him wondering if high achievement isn’t always a snap for the gifted and believing that those who achieve didn’t earn their success. If rising to the presidency is this easy, how hard could it be to build a restaurant?
The Roanoke “you didn’t build that” speech has become a train wreck for the Obama campaign. I think the reason that people can’t stop talking and thinking about it is that one sees an animated president who utters words clearly from his heart. However, s Coming Apart author and AEI scholar Charles Murray points out, these words are not in sync with how Americans traditionally have viewed success:
“You didn’t build that” is another example of the president’s tone-deafness when it comes to the music of the American culture. The phrase is not taken out of context. It didn’t come after a celebration of the inventiveness and risk taking of individual Americans that has made this country great. The president gave the mildest of acknowledgements to the role of the individual, followed by a paragraph of examples that cast American history as a series of collective accomplishments.
There’s a standard way for Americans to celebrate accomplishment. First, we call an individual onto the stage and say what great things that person has done. Then that person gives a thank-you speech that begins “I couldn’t have done this without…” and a list of people who helped along the way. That’s the way we’ve always done it. Everyone knows we all get help in life (and sometimes just get lucky). But we have always started with the individual and then worked out. It is not part of the American mindset to begin with the collective and admonish individuals for thinking too highly of their contribution.
…It is as if a Dutch politician—an intelligent, well-meaning Dutch politician—were somehow running for the American presidency, but bringing with him the Rawlsian, social-democratic ethos that, in the Netherlands, is the natural way to talk about a properly run society. We would listen to him and say to ourselves, “He doesn’t get this country.” That’s the thing about Obama. Time and again, he does things and says things that are un-American. Not evil. Not anti-American. Just un-American.
Philip Klein of the Examiner gets down in the weeds: he addresses the Obama team's retort that president really meant that the entrepreneur didn’t build the bridges and roads that are key to their success. Listen to the speech (again and again!). The president said what we think he said. And if the roads and bridges interpretation were the right one, well, we built those, too. We voted for them, and we paid for them.
Moreover, Klein makes the key point:
Obama is trying to sell the fantasy that if the government simply takes a tiny bit more from the wealthiest of Americans that the nation can tackle the debt, invest in infrastructure, rescue entitlements and improve the economy.