Yesterday morning, Andrew Sullivan wrote a lengthy blog post about President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” line. I thought we were done with this nonsense a full week ago, but apparently we’re not nearly there yet.
I say this not because of Sullivan’s post — or at least mostly not because of it — but because Matt Lewis, over the Daily Caller, exults that one of Obama’s biggest supporters is now blasting him for claiming that people aren’t hard-working and don’t make their own way in this country.
Amazingly, Lewis ignores the context of Sullivan’s post entirely, quoting Sullivan’s complaint while ignoring — for example — this sentence (which is the opening sentence of the post): “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.” Or this sentence: “I don’t find the argument that offensive. It’s pretty obviously true.”
Sullivan’s complaint is about the tone of Obama’s comments, which makes it harder to defend him against his critics, not their substance (which, again, he thinks is true). Lewis, though, takes Sullivan’s complaint to be about the substance. Here’s another bit of Sullivan’s post that Lewis didn’t quote — and it’s the crux of Sullivan’s complaint about Obama’s “You didn’t build that” line:
[W]hat 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.
Now here’s the part that Lewis liked so much that he built an entire blog post around it:
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.
So I have two problems.
Problem #1 is with Matt Lewis who either thinks that Andrew Sullivan is actually blasting Obama for the substance his comments and not his tone or would rather score some more cheap points by not actually getting right what it is that Sullivan is doing (since most of his readers already believe that Obama deserves to be blasted by everyone for being a socialist anyway).
Problem #2 is with Andrew Sullivan, whose feelings were hurt because he’s a hard worker who supports Obama. I’m hopeful he knows that Obama wasn’t actually attempting to denigrate anyone’s accomplishments so much as he was trying to provide some perspective about the positive role that government can play. He surely knows that there’s no way Obama could have made his point — a point which Sullivan believes is true — in a way that would have made his critics happy because, frankly, his critics hate him and cannot be disabused of the notion that he’s a socialist who wants to take away all of the hard-earned money they made by pulling themselves up entirely by their bootstraps while the skeletal hand of the government attempted to pull them down into the fireswamp in which it lives.
Obama could have spoken for an hour about how every American is a beautiful and unique snowflake … and he still would have been hammered for suggesting for even a split second during that hour that those snowflakes benefit in any way from living in a society with other people, from paying taxes, and from massive public projects undertaken by the government.
It would have been better for Obama to have spoken more clearly about what he meant and in a tone that made a hard worker like Sullivan feel better. That’s actually Sullivan’s point, though Lewis (once again) ignores it:
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.
Obama spoke extemporaneously, attempting to better connect with his audience, and he misspoke. He should have said, “You didn’t build that business on your own.” But even if he had chosen his words more carefully, it wouldn’t have mattered. A sizable chunk of people honestly believe that they’ve acheived everything good in their lives entirely on their own and, though they’re wrong, they are being actively discouraged from recognizing that they’re wrong by critics who care only that someone else sit in the Oval Office as soon as possible.