Why it mattered so much when Obama spoke those fateful words last week

For better or worse, there often comes a moment in a campaign when a candidate says something that crystallizes that candidate’s negatives — and this is true even if what he said, when examined carefully, was accurate or innocuous.  For example, John Kerry found himself irreparably foundering when he said, regarding Iraq War funding “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”  Never mind that Kerry was trying to explain some arcane Senate voting procedure.  What mattered was that he’d managed to string together 13 unlucky words (unlucky for him, at least) that distilled everything his opponents had been saying about his flip-flopping, prevaricating, and generally weasel-y behavior.  Context became irrelevant because Kerry’s own words perfectly defined him.

One could say that the same is true for Barack Obama’s now-famous statement that “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” It’s perfectly legitimate to argue that, when one looks at the sentence in context, the world’s greatest orator was trying, quite ineptly, to say that America’s businesses are dependent on a solidly operating infrastructure:

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.

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.

As I said, that’s a legitimate argument.  I think, however, that it’s actually being too kind to Obama to say that, just as happened to John Kerry, a single logical sentence has been ripped from its rational home in order to serve as an unfair example of the larger paradigm of Obama’s perceived politics.  Many people have now commented — and they’re quite right — that the words are just as bad in context, perhaps even worse.

Zombie has written the lengthiest analysis I’ve seen explaining that the entire passage regarding infrastructure makes no sense when one considers what Obama is trying to sell:  namely, larger federal government, paid for by taxes from the business community.  As Zombie explains, for Obama’s conclusions to make sense, three unstated factual predicates must be true.  Take any one of those three away, let alone all three, and what he said is goobledygook dressed up in socialist redistributive language:

When Obama implied at the Roanoke, Virginia rally that some businessmen refuse to pay for public works from which they benefit, he presented a thesis which, like a three-legged stool, relies on three assumptions that must all be true for the argument to remain standing:

1. That the public programs he mentioned in his speech constitute a significant portion of the federal budget;
2. That business owners don’t already pay far more than their fair share of these expenses; and
3. That these specific public benefits are a federal issue, rather than a local issue.

If any of these legs fails, then the whole argument collapses.

For good measure, we won’t just kick out one, we’ll kick out all three.

Zombie makes good on his/her promise, and then throws in a few other factual grenades to demolish anything that might be left of Obama’s contention that American business people are parasites who use the federal government to create their wealth, and then refuse to let the IRS use its police power to take back that same wealth.  Briefly (and this brief summary should whet your appetite, not satisfy it), Zombie explains that, even if all those public programs Obama named did everything Obama promised, those specific programs — all of which represent a traditional understanding of government’s role — constitute only 25% of federal spending.  The remaining 75% of federal goes, in large part, to redistributive programs of the type only a Progressive can love.  Zombie then reminds us all that, even if one assumes that business people suck up 25% of federal largesse, they pay over 40% of federal taxes.  Apparently they’re due a refund.  Lastly, and to me this was a pivotal argument, most of the things Obama speaks about — teachers, roads, etc. — are paid for by local governments, using local taxes.  Increasing federal government will not provide any greater benefit to the business community.

Jon Podhoretz makes a preemptive strike against those who would argue that context explains how how innocent Obama’s remarks really were.  In fact, he says, context makes them infinitely worse, because it ignores that the government is our product, not vice versa:

The whole idea of being a productive citizen who pays his taxes in a progressive system is that you are paying your own way—and even more than your own way to help others less fortunate. In other words, you are the one building the roads and bridges, or at least paying more than your sharefor your own use of them and their maintenance and their upkeep. The government gathers the money from every other user (and everyone else who pays for more than his use to help carry the burden of others who can’t) and pools it. That money is collected and pooled through the actions of a democratically elected legislature and signed into law by a democratically elected president, who are fulfilling the mandate assigned them by you.

Government doesn’t build it. Government doesn’t make it possible. You do.

(Read the rest here.)

Scott Johnson, at Power Line, also notices this fault line in Obama’s entire riff, to the effect that the government owns us, not vice versa:

Obama’s remarks support his demand for higher income taxes. Making his case, Obama seeks to undermine the claim of right with which individuals hold their property, their income, their wealth. Under Obama’s doctrine, all arise from the collective support of the government. They are not the fruit of the individual’s labor.

Under Obama’s doctrine, there is no just limit on the power of the government to take the individual’s property. The property isn’t that man’s alone; he alone did not earn it. What the government does not take from the individual by taxes or regulation remains his conditionally, on the sufferance of the state.

This notion, the we are slaves of the government, is profoundly un-American.  I don’t mean this in a facile, “America, love it or leave it” kind of way.  I mean that it runs directly counter to the core principle stated in the Declaration of Independence, which is that our God-given freedoms include a right to a government that serve, rather than dictates to, its citizens:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Obama has declared the un-Constitution, one that holds that all men are created dependent, with their only inalienable right being their continued obligation to support the governing system into which they are born.  This is the antithesis of what our Founders sought to create, and it runs counter to the contract between government and people that we know as the Constitution.

I leave you with the words a friend sent me, because he so perfectly understands the dependency that underlies Obama’s claim that we are subordinate to our government:

The whole “you didn’t do that” thing is just the flip side of the whole not being responsible for you own actions thing they have going. Not only are you not responsible for any consequences, but nothing you’ve earned with your own two hands is yours either! Surprise! No consequences and no rewards. We merely exist in a state of consumption, chirping like birds for a hand out. It’s almost as if they throw statements like that out there on purpose just to see how much BS we’ll actually swallow.

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  • JKB

    I recommend everyone read this testimony by the humble but prolific writer, Pencil.   I, Pencil  speaks to this arrogant claim that anyone, government or otherwise, can actually mastermind anything into existence.  The public roads, the police, the fire fighter are but a tiny contributor to any enterprise and not directly contributory at that.  And none of those could exist without the faith in free people who arrange themselves into creative and productive patterns to produce the tools and materials the “government” brings to bear.

    “The above is what I meant when writing, “If you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing.” For, if one is aware that these know-hows will naturally, yes, automatically, arrange themselves into creative and productive patterns in response to human necessity and demand—that is, in the absence of governmental or any other coercive masterminding—then one will possess an absolutely essential ingredient for freedom: a faith in free people. Freedom is impossible without this faith. ”

    I submit that the No. 2 pencil, capable of defeating both the old and new Green Lanterns, is beyond the mastermind of even the most technocratic government.  

  • jsonnick

    Great post, BW.  I wouldn’t have seen Zombie’s analysis if you hadn’t linked it.  Here’s a brilliant Romney campaign ad that’s just been posted (this is the one Iowahawk and Glenn have recently linked.)

  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com David Foster

    The whole idea that “infrastructure” is synonymous with “government funded” is false. Consider:

    *Railroads, which are an absolutely vital part of our freight-transportation system. These are owned and funded by private companies. Yeah, lots of railroads got land grants 150 years ago, but since then, the investment has been funded by shareholders, bondholders, and operating cash flow. 

    *Electric power….the generation, local distribution, and most long-haul transmission were and are privately funded. 

    *Natural gas…all long-haul pipelines and virtually all local distribution are privately funded. 

    *Telecommunications…transmission and switching, privately funded. 

  • Allen

    The “Julia” ad was no miscalculation, it was their view of people. This speech was just more of the same, your existence is for the purposes of the state.

    Welcome to the collective. 

  • Danny Lemieux

    You didn’t build the government, Mr. President. We, the people, built the government.

  • Zoltan

    Three points regarding the President’s assertion. Firstly, the infrastructure was there for everyone to use. So how come some were successful in using it and some were not? The person who is smarter, more industrious, better educated, more disciplined, has a better work ethic has an advantage over the 30-year old living in his parent’s basement who spends his days smoking dope and playing video games all day. Personal decisions in life have consequences. If you don’t WORK, chances you will not be successful.
    Secondly, the infrastructure was payed for with tax dollars. People got the money to pay the taxes by WORKING. Working by being self-employed, working for a business, or even working in a government job.
    Finally, the government didn’t make the infrastructure magically appear. The infrastructure could not have been built without companies and WORKERS. The companies existed because at sometime a person or group of people decided to take a chance, invest capital, and WORKED hard to make their company succeed.
    Obama’s ignorance of history is only exceeded by his ignorance of capitalism and economics.

  • Ron19

    Zoltan:  ” If you don’t WORK, chances you will not be successful.”

    OK, then, explain Mr. and Mrs. Obama!

  • Simplemind

    You didn’t build that speech Mr. President, someone else did.

    Oops. It was off prompter wasn’t it. 

    Guess he does own it after all.

  • Zoltan

    Good point, Ron 19, but if you have all the progressives, the main stream media, the Chicago political machine, and George Soros’s money working for you; you just have to show up with a big smile and read the teleprompter. It also helps to have an electorate “educated” by hard-working progressives the past fifty years.

  • Simmer

    Preamble, Obama’s Declaration of Dependence
    In ABSENTIA, Over the Past Hundred Years or So

    The singular Declaration of an Imperious Government
    When in the Course of historic revisionism it becomes convenient for one government to dissolve the political bands which have connected it with a legitimate constitution and to assume among the powers of the earth, the distinct and superior station to which the Laws of Ideology and of Mother Earth entitle it, a casual disregard to the opinions of mankind suggests that it should declare the causes which impels it to the usurpation.
    We hold these truths to be … well, duh! … that all LGBT-persons/women/and some men have evolved equal, that they are assigned by their Government with certain revocable Entitlements, that among these are Raw Existence, Mean Servitude and the pursuit of Government Provided Largesse. — That to provide these entitlements, Governments are forced upon LGBT-persons/women/and some Men, deriving their random powers from the ignorance of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Society dares question these ends, it is the Right of the Government to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on obscure principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to it shall seem most likely to effect its Dominance and Supremacy. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments thus established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are born to suffer, while evils will be meted out, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of sovereignty and free-thinking, pursuing invariably the same tiresome Object evinces a design to reduce Government under absolute Liberty, it is its right, it is its duty, to throw off such Nonsense, and to provide new Guards for its future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of this Government; and such is now the necessity which constrains it to alter its former System of a Constitutional Federal Republic. The history of the present Subjects of the Unified Socialist Alliance is a history of repeated disobedience and intransigence, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Freedom over this Alliance. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to an apathetic world.