The Context of the President’s Context

It’s intriguing to observe the telescoping nature of the “context” to which folks are referring when discussing President Obama’s infamous Friday the 13th Roanoake speech. The damning two sentences continue to be:

If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.

The inferred meaning is that somebody else should get credit for the business that you built. The president’s defenders introduce the entire paragraph and the next, arguing that the context shows Obama’s statement to have been that business owners didn’t build the infrastructure on which their businesses rely:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.  Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

The critics expand the text in the opposite direction, to the paragraph before, arguing that the context is, if anything, worse than the gaffe, mainly because of the preachy, scornful tone:

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.

At this point, as I’ve argued (and continue to believe), the president’s defenders are probably correct on the grammatical point of the key sentence, but his detractors have the better case on the context.  In response, a liberal commenter on Anchor Rising criticized me for not including the whole speech.  And happy, as ever, to comply, I took a closer look and did indeed come to a striking conclusion: Obama’s context is even worse than I’d thought.  How is it, for example, that nobody on the right has expanded the quotation to the prior paragraph (emphasis added):

I’m going to reduce the deficit in a balanced way.  We’ve already made a trillion dollars’ worth of cuts.  We can make another trillion or trillion-two, and what we then do is ask for the wealthy to pay a little bit more.  (Applause.)  And, by the way, we’ve tried that before — a guy named Bill Clinton did it.  We created 23 million new jobs, turned a deficit into a surplus, and rich people did just fine.  We created a lot of millionaires.

Who is this “we”?  Perhaps the president would not deny that people built the paper structures that they call “my business,” and perhaps he wouldn’t deny that it took some amount of “initiative” to take that step, but it is “we the government” that “created” millionaires (apparently by taxing them more).

The worse context, though, comes with President Obama’s vision on the other end of the pure-luck spectrum between hard-working regular folks and hard-working successful folks.  Read this closely:

…at the heart of this country, its central idea is the idea that in this country, if you’re willing to work hard, if you’re willing to take responsibility, you can make it if you try. That you can find a job that supports a family and find a home you can make your own; that you won’t go bankrupt when you get sick.  That maybe you can take a little vacation with your family once in a while — nothing fancy, but just time to spend with those you love.*  Maybe see the country a little bit, maybe come down to Roanoke.  That your kids can get a great education, and if they’re willing to work hard, then they can achieve things that you wouldn’t have even imagined achieving.  And then you can maybe retire with some dignity and some respect, and be part of a community and give something back.

This is “you can make it if you try”?  No.  It’s The Life of Julia, which Thomas McClanahan described very well in the Kansas City Star as “a life without ambition.”  It’s a “sterile vision” of “the American citizen as a submissive, isolated entity — docile and disconnected from extended family or the web of groups and associations that make up a healthy civil society.” And unable to achieve extraordinary except by the whim of fate or fluctuation of government.

The Heart of America, in this view, is that the government can ensure that nobody who is willing to “work hard” (by some bureaucratically determined threshold) will fall behind a standard of living just a hair beyond subsistence.  Well, if you have to “work hard” and “take responsibility” in order to achieve that, what remains to explain those who are even more successful other than largely undeserved luck or damnable manipulation?

Across a range of topics — from analyzing the pension crisis to tracing the path by which healthcare exchanges become “dependency portals” — the concept underlying all of civil society’s major debates appears to be risk.  Do Americans want the promised land of guaranteed Just Enough presented to Julia and the audience in Roanoake, or do they still believe that the dynamism of a risk-taking population ultimately improves everybody’s lives?

As the pension crisis, in particular, proves, this is ultimately a false choice.  Nobody can guarantee comfort over the long term of multiple generations, most especially the government.  The security of a low-yield life still requires a guarantor, and in the grand economic scheme of society, there isn’t one.  Anybody who says differently (or claims to be he) should be watched very closely, indeed.


* I can’t let the president’s vacation comment pass without an expression of awe at his audacity, given the itinerary of the Obama’s since the family breadwinner took the White House.

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