Credit for Building, Blame for Dividing

President Obama’s teleprompter style has been the subject of substantial (often mocking) critical commentary, and with some justification, as this nearly parodic 2010 video from a Virginia classroom proves:

Given recent political events, one can sympathize with the desire of public officials to avoid extemporaneous speech.  In a world in which one’s every public utterance can be recorded, scrutinized, and exploited, one can’t rely on an audience’s capacity to get your drift and give you the benefit of the doubt.  And it’s all to easy to blurt out a sentence such as the now infamous, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.”

Predictably, in the realm of commentary, the debate has moved to the meta matter of whether commentators are deliberately misconstruing the President’s meaning. On Slate, Dave Weigel charitably infers “a missing sentence or clause” that Obama neglected to utter because he was “rambling.” On Reason (via Instapundit), Tim Cavanaugh rejoins that “at some point it helps to look at that thing above the subtext, which is generally known as ‘the text.'”

In the absence of those teleprompters, though, the text is ultimately a collection of thoughts imperfectly formed as spoken words. Even with the rusty analytical chops remaining from my years of literature study (and my political leanings in the other direction), I have to admit that Weigel has a point.  If we’re transcribing the speech precisely, the words were: “Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, that… you didn’t build that.”

The word “that” appears to refer to the investment in roads and bridges; had the speech been teleprompted, the intended clause might have been, “that was essential to your achievement.”  It’s a poor grammatical construction, and one can see why the President stumbled on it, but such is improvisation.

On the other hand, those who’ve dragged the political spat into the realm of grammatical analysis are conspicuously dragging it away from the more disconcerting aspects of President Obama’s presentation.  First of them is the tone of lecturing mockery, nearing spite, when he discusses those who’ve built businesses.  “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!”

More deeply problematic, though, is the premise.  Most will agree that all Americans, successful or not, have benefited from the investments of those who preceded us (whether made via government, charity, or private venture). It is rarely articulated, but long-term projects in a society are made with a view toward our children and our children’s children.  And most will agree that hard work and intelligence are not always sufficient in the absence of good fortune. The ingredients for success are fine and subtle, and only the arrogant will assert that finding the right formula was entirely their own doing.

But here’s the thing: President Obama uses that arrogant strawman as a stand-in for business owners generally: “If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.  You didn’t get there on your own!”

The assumption appeared in a re-phrased way in a comment to a post by Marc Comtois on Anchor Rising. Writes Russ, “Successful small businesses owe a debt of gratitude to the people of this country.”

As true as that may be, it elides a critical fact: namely, that successful small-business owners are included among “the people of this country.” For his own political gain and aggrandizement of government officials (who fall decisively on the “you didn’t build that” side when it comes to the economy), President Obama is turning the joint effort of our society into a division of spoils.

Who owes whom what? Let’s tally this up; first I’ll take my portion as a government arbiter. Next, I’ll take your fealty for giving you an advantage that you otherwise don’t deserve in the distribution.

In a healthy, free, democratic society, gratitude should be mutual and must be expressed through willing interaction, not government confiscation.  What the President let slip, in his unscripted moment, was the belief of the ruling class that they are the representatives of the “people of this country” not just in the limited scope of elective office, but as the embodiment of the public will — authorized to interpret the intricate and intimate thoughts and behavior of millions.

The President, in that case, is not just the chief executive, but the Nation made Flesh.  And yet, the Obama administration has not managed to make American society function; far from an Eden, life has dragged on under his watch.  So, he needs a snake.

What is stunning and offensive in his remark, especially because it was candid, is that he has singled out a segment of regular American folks — specifically those who’ve put our shared investments to the most productive use — as the villainous parasites.

Demagogues have historically looked for foreign elements to demonize, whether across borders or having infiltrated their own communities. It is telling that President Obama has chosen, for his evil opposing force, an image that many of us still see as the American Spirit — taking hold of whatever resources and opportunities are available to us in order to build something better and thereby benefit everybody the world over.

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