These election-year days, you might want to ignore some of the more breathless headlines. Either the president's poll numbers are so bad that he's got little chance in November, or Mitt Romney's poll numbers show him losing big. Either the president's policies have saved us from ruination, or his opponent will get us out of this mess. Whether you're a fan of Barack Obama or the Republican nominee-in-waiting, you can find all the news that's fit to agree with. You just have to know where to look.
A headline in the Washington Times, or maybe it was in Drudge last weekend, suggested President Obama said something about business owners not really being responsible for building their companies. The quote? It went something like this: "If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."
Ah, the silly season. Sometimes it's hard to keep a straight face. The Times — the one in Washington — and the website officially called The Drudge Report are known for leaning starboard in their politics. Sometimes so far they just about fall overboard. This story had to be just another example of their taking something out of context and serving it up to their faithful readers, right? The way you'd throw red meat to right-wingers?
Except . . . .
Except, after watching the video of the president's speech, you'd be forgiven if you didn't get that feeling.
Not at all. The man sounded perfectly serious.
It's going to be interesting to see how the president's spinners explain this one away. The comment about somebody else's being responsible for your success, Mr. Business Owner, wasn't taken out of context. Though there was a lot of context in this speech. An awful, boring lot. This president's speeches about the economy aren't measured in minutes but light-years.
Listen to this speech and you know exactly how this president feels about the private sector -- and the role government should play in all our lives. The dominant role. (He gave the speech in Roanoke, Va., last Friday.
Here's where the good part starts:
"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."
So far, so not-so-bad. Everybody's had parents, friends, teachers, good examples -- or should. Then ...
"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."
No doubt. But how many of those smart, hardworking people out there are taking out a second mortgage to buy a business or borrowing against their retirement plan to meet a payroll? And sometimes, although the president of the United States may find this hard to believe, the businessman in question may just be smarter than most of us. What would you give to go back in time and invent Facebook? Or the iPhone? Or are we supposed to believe Steve Jobs wasn't exceptional-that anybody could do what he did?
Edison, Westinghouse, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright brothers, all the great American inventor-entrepreneurs . . . . Nothing special about them, right? And the dreamers at work right now, they don't deserve any special credit, either, according to the president.
Is there any contempt so complete as that of our intellectual elite for business types -- even if they're the sort who found universities, fund faculty positions and research grants and government itself? Or maybe our elite think they're just entitled to support from the lesser, bean-counting breed? Most Americans know better. We daresay they'd trust a Sam Walton with their economic future a lot quicker than, well, a Barack Obama.
It's a dangerous tack to take, sneering at smart business people who work hard -- or even just get lucky -- this close to election day. Folks might remember.
Unfortunately, the president continued:
"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. . . ."
Then came a few platitudes about the need for both individual initiative and teamwork. (Who could disagree with that?) And after that long wind-up, the breaking curve:
"Ever since the founding of this country, there are some things we do better together. That's how we funded the GI bill. That's how we created the middle class. That's how we built the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hoover Dam. That's how we invented the Internet. That's how we sent a man to the moon. We rise and fall together as one nation, and as one people, and that's the reason I'm running for president because I still believe in that idea ... ."
Forget about all these generalities nobody could disagree with. It's almost a requirement in 2012 American politics to talk about great teachers, the American way of life and all of us being one nation. But the idea that government is responsible for every worthwhile thing in the country, including every successful business, well, that's a little far-out even for Mr. Obama.
Maybe the president really believes that Al Gore invented the Internet, or that government invented fracking, which even now is solving the American energy crisis. Hey, who ever heard about George P. Mitchell and the Barnett Shale anyway, except a few Texans and business historians? Hydraulic fracking of shale to obtain natural gas and oil may have been around as a theory for some time, and public-funded research may have explored it, but it took a crazy wildcatter willing to risk his all on the idea to make it a reality that is changing our lives and our economy. For the better.
Yes, government does build highways and dams. But the president felt no need to go into detail. Nowhere did he mention, say, Henry Ford and those who built the automobile industry. Why does he think the government had to build highways? Because somebody in the private sector-like Henry Ford-built a car, and people wanted to drive and be driven. The Hoover Dam does indeed produce a lot of electricity. Why? To operate newfangled gizmos like the light bulb. Does the president believe it was invented by government, too?
We're glad Mr. Obama gave this speech. We have an idea he's even given it before, he's so proud of it. It does show how he thinks. Or feels, anyway. Namely, that all things good flow from government. That we must all be prepared to give what we can, each according to his ability. Then we can all collect, each according to his need. It's an ideal system, though it may prove only an ideal. In practice, it can produce monstrosities like Soviet Russia, the Cultural Revolution in Mao's China, National Socialism and other such dubious beneficences of allpowerful government.
For if the government is responsible for the interstates, the Internet and the Hoover Dam, it can also introduce institutions like the DMV, the Transportation Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service.
But thank you, Mr. President. That was one heckuva speech. Or at least a telling one.
Even though November is months away, we have a feeling the words "If you've got a business, you didn't build that," will still be running in our ears. We can't wait to vote.