The media's post-modern deconstruction of Obama's "if you have a business--you didn't build that" comment is my personal high-point of this election year. Not since Clinton's "it depends on what the definition of is, is" have we witnessed the media contort itself to such absurd lengths to explain away what is obvious to everyone. Even allowing the media's argument that Obama's "that" meant "roads and bridges" and not "business" the entire speech betrays Obama deep disdain for business.
Obama's larger point in the speech was to add qualifiers to success. It was an attempt to add some kind of collective guilt to successful individuals and businesses, chiefly to justify higher taxes on them. It was also a thinly veiled attempt to discredit at least some part of their success, to stoke at least some resentment among those who have been less successful. His tacit message is that it isn't really "you" who made your success, rather it was your ability to exploit the things "we" paid for which allowed you to prosper. It wasn't your "smarts" or "hard work", but some random benefit you received that others didn't. Obama often mentions "luck" as a factor in success, which, while maybe partially true in some cases, isn't exactly an inspiring message from a President.
The entire message makes sense given Obama's basic framework of government. It recalls his silly "Life of Julia" campaign ad which chronicled a composite woman's life as a series of positive interactions with government. Every critical juncture of her life is improved because of an activist government. In Obama's world, though, without that government her life worsens. The single variable between prosperity and poverty throughout her life is the appropriate government policy or program.
To a degree, this view isn't surprising for a politicians who has spent the bulk of his adult career in politics. But, Obama did have one job in the private sector. After college he worked for a short time at Business International, a research and consulting firm assisting American companies working overseas. David Maraniss' recent biography of Obama provides a revealing glimpse of Obama's time working for a corporation:
B.I. represented a holding pattern, a place where he could earn some money before moving on to his future,but it was also a convenient setting for his internal story. In what his mother characterized as ‘a rather mumbled telephone conversation’ with him over the long-distance lines between New York and Jakarta, he described his job to her. He calls it working for the enemy because some of the reports are written for commercial firms that want to invest in [Third World] countries; Ann reported in a letter to her mentor back in Honolulu, Alice Dewey. Later, when he wrote those few paragraphs about B.I. in his memoir, he repeated that idea: Like a spy behind enemy lines, I arrived every day at my mid-Manhattan office and sat at my computer terminal, checking the Reuters machine that blinked bright emerald messages from across the globe.’” (David Maraniss, Barack Obama: The Story, 2012, pp. 487-488)
Obama also expressed a "distaste" for the corporate world:
Obama wrote a letter to his former girlfriend, Alex McNear, during that period, the last he would write to her. As in his telephone conversation with his mother, he expressed a distaste for the corporate world. He wrote Alex on Business International stationery, but crossed out the logo on the envelope and scribbled in his own address on West 114th Street.” (David Maraniss, Barack Obama: The Story, 2012, p. 488)
So, yes, by all means, let's put Obama's speech in the proper "context." He described his short stint in the private sector as "working for the enemy." He was a "spy behind enemy lines." That certainly adds some perspective to his infamous "you didn't build that" line.
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