Parsing the President’s Remarks

The Bob Brunton story brought a lot of visitors to this website.  It also prompted a lot of heated commentary in the comments box.  The reason I posted that story is because I felt the president was downplaying the contributions of entrepreneurs.  Now, the president is saying that he just meant that small businesspeople didn’t build roads and bridges.  I am convinced that he was implying more than that in the remarks he made.

Phil Klein has made the case well, but I’d like to echo his analysis and maybe add a bit of my own.  As Klein pointed out, there are two paragraphs that really matter here.  The second one is the one that has gotten all of the attention because of the “you didn’t build that” phrasing.  But the preceding paragraph is the one that bothers me.  Here it is:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back.  They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.  You didn’t get there on your own.  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.

With this bit of rhetoric, I think the president made a demagogic appeal to the masses.  In essence, he is arguing that there isn’t anything all that special about the people who build successful businesses.  There are a lot of people who are smart and who work hard, he is saying.  And they aren’t all successful.  In other words, the implication goes, things just worked out for the folks who think they made it on merit.  “Why should they benefit from their success?  Things just worked out in their favor.”  This is a common appeal to the masses by the demagogue.  “Those who have succeeded won their rewards through luck or some other sleight of hand.  Why do they deserve what they have???”  The subtext is obvious.  “Why shouldn’t you have some of what they have?”

The reason I wanted to highlight Bob Brunton is that I think he is typical of many small business owners.  He took risks with his own money, worked very hard for a long time, accepted the pressure of making payroll each week for his employees, contended with competition, and managed to earn a good living.  There is something special about someone who can do it.  I am especially sensitive to the contributions of these people because I’ve never had to stand in their shoes.  Every one of us who has been able to count on a paycheck for a week’s work should be grateful to the people who did what was necessary to give us the opportunity to have a job.

Sure, there are a lot of smart and hard-working people in the world.  Not all of them have built businesses.  The ones who have ARE special.  They had the drive, the vision, and the sheer grittiness to tough it out and see something through.  These people should not be viewed as some kind of honeypot from which we can extract revenues for income redistribution.  They should be honored, encouraged, and protected from excessive taxation and regulation.  If we kill the drive they have to build something from the ground up, we’ll kill our country.

10 thoughts on “Parsing the President’s Remarks

  1. I think you’re right about the two paragraphs; if you take only the second you can see how the claim could be made that he was talking about the necessity of having government. Amazon would exist without the internet and DARPA invented the internet. Granted.

    But when you consider the context that was set by the first paragraph, it goes beyond infrastructure. The more Obama speaks, the more concerned I am about his vision of America. I’ll be voting AEO (anyone except Obama) this year. Not so much for someone else but very much against him.

    • ‘Amazon would exist without the internet’?

      just taking that out of context, i would have to conclude you’re pretty ignorant. in context, however, i realize you just made a little typo.

      you’re mistaken. obama was not belittling individual initiative. in context it’s obvious he was just pointing out interdependent we all are.

  2. Yes, there is a certain amount of ‘luck’ involved in success.

    However, I believe a large part of ‘luck’ is made by one’s self.

    Yeah, I’d rather be lucky than good. But good work works pretty good too.

    • a lot of very hard-working people get nowhere. it’s not always their own fault. luck and sustained effort are usually both necessary for success. help from others both before and along the way is usually also needed. some people may succeed without luck. almost nobody does anything entirely on his/her own.

  3. From a writing standpoint, the whole speech was a mess. I had to read it three times before I understood what he was trying to say.

    The two paragraphs together paint a disconcerting picture. He had to know how they sounded when they were written. I analyze everything from a writing standpoint. His word choice was very specific. There is no way someone could misconstrue those statements. At the time I thought either he’s trying to be reactionary, or he’s belieing a personal philosphy, or both.

    Well, he certainly did get a reaction.

    • it’s interesting you analyze it ‘from a writing standpoint’. yes, it was written. but it was a speech. speech contains stress, inflection, and other elements not always obvious in the writing. you read it three times before you got it. i heard it once and got it right away. if his opponent’s organization hadn’t edited it to remove the context and distort the meaning, the controversy would not exist.

  4. Yes, I think what’s disconcerting in Obama’s remarks is that we’ve shifted from the mindset of believing that the success of our country is primarily rooted in the citizens and their hard work and ingenuity and sacrifice, and that we should all be grateful for such people, to the mindset that it’s primarily the government that makes the country work and that we should all be grateful for it’s presence in our lives. They are precisely opposite angles from which to view our civic life.

    • it’s not that black & white. obama was talking about how we all contribute to each other’s success, not just how govt makes success possible. but govt does contribute essential elements. how many of the great success stories would have happened without the infrastructure govt built. i think obama mentioned roads and bridges, but he could have said the internet and even computers themselves (since the first real computer, ENIAC, was built under govt contract). govt wouldn’t exist without people, however, and it can’t get much done without public support. i’m certainly not running down the people, and i don’t think obama was, either.

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