New York Times, July 18, 2012
It took only a few days for it to become a favorite Republican talking point. President Obama told an audience that “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that; somebody else made that happen.”
Suddenly his critics had proof that he does not believe in individual success or the free market. Mitt Romney scrapped much of his stump speech on Wednesday to focus on the line and sent surrogates to reinforce the point. Mr. Obama’s aides said he was taken out of context, that he was referring to the value of public structures like bridges and roads in the nation’s commerce.
Either way, putting aside the predictable partisan cross-fire and the inevitable Internet-fueled distortions, even in proper context the president’s remarks crystallize a profound disagreement that defines this year’s campaign. More perhaps than any presidential contest in years, the choice between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney presents voters with starkly different philosophies about the role of government in American society.
Read in total, Mr. Obama’s comments make clear that he celebrates individual achievement and free enterprise while believing that they are bolstered by collective investment. At its core, the president’s argument is that the every-man-for-himself ethos he attributes to his opponents does not work. Instead, he advances a we’re-in-this-together creed born out of his days as a community activist. It is this belief that to him justifies government programs as necessary for American progress at a time when that is not fashionable.
Mr. Romney, for his part, has also been a believer in activist government at times, certainly when he was governor of Massachusetts and enacted a pioneering plan to expand health care coverage. But the lifelong entrepreneur in him hears words like Mr. Obama’s as a repudiation of the storied American tradition of rugged individualism and the self-made man. While he is pressing an argument as part of his campaign, he also reflects a deep strain in America that eschews the sort of communitarian doctrine espoused by the president.
“America has historically swung between an emphasis on individualism and an emphasis on community,” said Robert D. Putnam, a Harvard University professor who has written books on the role of community in America. “It may not feel like we’re having this big philosophical debate, but underneath, I think that really is what’s at stake.”
Professor Putnam, who got to know Mr. Obama during seminar retreats more than a decade ago where these issues were discussed, said individualism had dominated the national mood for much of the last 40 years. “This is a big swing of the historical pendulum, and he’d like to be involved in beginning the swing back the other direction,” he said of Mr. Obama.
But those on the other side said the president’s remarks were revealing because by arguing that the state or society had a role in creating individual success, they believe he is justifying the government’s taking a share. Kevin A. Hassett, director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said Mr. Obama’s philosophy had driven Mr. Romney’s countervailing approach.
“Obama really has become the argument for redistribution, the argument for statism,” said Mr. Hassett, who has advised George W. Bush, John McCain and now Mr. Romney. “And so that’s shaped his opposition.”
Mr. Obama’s remarks reflect sentiments he expressed in a speech in Osawatomie, Kan., last December, previewing what he saw as themes of the campaign. They also resemble similar thoughts articulated by Elizabeth Warren, the hero of liberals who is running for the Senate in Massachusetts.
Mr. Obama’s latest comments came on Friday night in a fire station in Roanoke, Va. “Look,” he told supporters, “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. 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, that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”
Within days, critics took notice, and the remarks became fodder for discussion on Fox News and in outlets like National Review. By Wednesday, Mr. Romney made it his topic for the day.
The phrase “really reveals what he thinks about our country, about our people, about free enterprise, about freedom, about individual initiative, about America,” Mr. Romney told supporters in Bowling Green, Ohio. He asked those who started or ran a business to stand. Some 30 to 40 people did, many holding signs reading, “I created a business. Not the government” or “I opened my own business.”
“I know that you recognize a lot of people helped you in that business,” Mr. Romney told them. “Perhaps the banks. Investors. There’s no question your mom and dad, your schoolteacher, the people who provide roads, the fire and police. But let me ask you this: Did you build your business? If you did, raise your hand.”
Many hands went up. “Take that, Mr. President,” Mr. Romney said.
David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama, said in an interview that the president considers individual initiative “the principal driver in one’s success” but “it’s also true there are things we do as a country that contribute to that.”
For Mr. Obama, he said, this is nothing new. “This isn’t a revelation,” Mr. Axelrod said. “This is a fundamental article of faith.”
And a fundamental point of contention to be resolved, however temporarily, in November.
Trip Gabriel contributed reporting from Bowling Green, Ohio.