Do you expect to be mocked for exerting yourself to achieve something difficult and important?
Josh Barro of Bloomberg suggests that another reason the president’s “You didn’t build that” speech lives on in infamy is that it was just plain insulting to anyone who values personal achievement. The president’s barbs were ostensibly aimed at high-achievers. But, by extension, anyone who values what she has done, even if the achievement is less than, say, founding a Fortune 500 company, might well be offended.
Barro quotes the relevant text from YDBT:
I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.
Really? The president is always struck by people who take credit for their own successes? Obviously, every successful outcome in life — and every failed one — arises from a combination of internal and external factors. But the president’s tone when he said this, amused by the very idea of people taking credit for their achievements, was off-putting.
[David] Frum mostly talks about why this statement irks rich people, but I believe it resonates badly with people at all income levels. Lots of people — most, I hope — are proud of something they’ve achieved in their lives and feel like that achievement owes much to their own hard work and talents. You don’t have to make over $250,000 a year to be annoyed when the president mocks people for taking credit for their achievements.
And it’s an especially jarring statement because of what it’s used to justify — higher taxes, with the implication being that they are called for because people do not deserve their own pre-tax wealth. People are rightly unnerved by an argument that amounts to “we can tax you because you didn’t deserve this anyway.” Faced with such an argument, defending your own contribution to your success isn’t just a point of pride — it’s an argument you must make to defend the principle that you are entitled to your own private property.
During the Bush years, The West Wing, a TV show about a virtuous Democratic administration, provided an alternative universe for unhappy liberals. The show was created and written lefty Aaron Sorkin. Interestingly, Barro has unearthed a West Wing quote from speechwriter Sam Seaborn (played by Rob Lowe) that indicates that even Aaron Sorkin might find the sentiments enshrined in YDBT distasteful.
Sam has been asked by Democratic senators to add a line to a presidential speech attacking Republican tax cuts for “private jets and swimming pools.” Seaborn responds:
Henry, last fall, every time your boss got on the stump and said, "It's time for the rich to pay their fair share," I hid under a couch and changed my name. I left Gage Whitney making $400,000 a year, which means I paid twenty-seven times the national average in income tax. I paid my fair share, and the fair share of twenty-six other people. And I'm happy to 'cause that's the only way it's gonna work, and it's in my best interest that everybody be able to go to schools and drive on roads, but I don't get twenty-seven votes on Election Day. The fire department doesn't come to my house twenty-seven times faster and the water doesn't come out of my faucet twenty-seven times hotter. The top one percent of wage earners in this country pay for twenty-two percent of this country. Let's not call them names while they're doing it, is all I'm saying.
President Obama, hire Sam Seaborn.
PS. I also have some ideas about why YDBT won't die.