I know full well that the full context of the “You didn’t build that” quote largely exonerates Barack Obama from the absurd charge that he somehow dislikes or loathes individual achievement, entrepreneurship, and business. But for the second time in this campaign, Romney’s most powerful weapon against Obama is Obama’s words themselves. In this extremely close election, Obama cannot afford unforced errors. And yet this is his second. His statement that “the private sector is doing fine” – while also perfectly innocuous in its description of the relative state of the public and private economy – was political malpractice by an experienced pro like him. The first gaffe was completely unnecessary: Obama called a press conference to shove his foot in his mouth. The second was, so far as I can tell, an off-the-cuff reprise of this Elizabeth Warren schtick:
I don’t find the argument that offensive. It’s pretty obviously true. But what was wrong about it, I realize upon reflection, was the tone. It was condescending; it was rhetorically hostile to an imaginary entrepreneur complaining about class warfare. And that rhetorical aggression effectively – and unnecessarily – alienates anyone who has ever built a business or made a success of herself. I doubt Obama would have used those words in a composed speech – the speechwriters and the president himself would have red-flagged the construction.
And look: my own view is that, sure, government helps the individual in a market economy. Without a strong government, there is no effective market economy. Unlike some contemporary conservatives, apparently, I have read Adam Smith. I had a government-paid education through college that was among the best in the world. My healthcare as a kid was socialized. The fact that I have managed to make a living through writing was undoubtedly helped, nourished and sustained by public sector investment – not least of which was the Internet itself, made possible by defense spending.
But whatever success I have had is also due to my own efforts. I was the first in my family to go to college and became a classic American immigrant – arriving with a scholarship and now living my own small version of the American Dream. Six other people now have jobs because I spent six years blogging for nothing. Producing the kind of output on the Dish for twelve years is something you have to be devoted to. It takes real elbow grease. I’m ok with paying half my income to various levels of government as the price of having this opportunity, but I’d rather not be told I’m lucky not to pay much more. Or that I somehow owe much of it to someone else I don’t know.
That quote, in other words, is going to be used and used and used to foment a story-line that is as dangerous to Obama as Romney’s massive tax-sheltering is to him. It adds a personal connection to a larger argument, being made on Fox News every other minute, that Obama is an alien to the “Anglo-Saxon” American way of life. And the chief architect of that propaganda campaign is, alas, the president himself and a lapse of self-discipline.