As I was thinking about Barack Obama's potentially disastrous channeling of Elizabeth Warren, that Sioux Falls radio campaign came to mind. What Obama said was almost the Bizarro World version of the pitch you'd hear on the radio. So we're fair, here's a full quote:
“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 quote that the Romney campaign is gleefully using is "If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."
"The point is, when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires."
Writing for the Chicago Tribune, longtime Obama observer John Kass asks the salient question, using his father's grocery store as an example:
Somebody else, Mr. President? Who, exactly? Government?Well, it certainly was government in Chicago, which is where Barack Obama comes from. Government, in the place where Barack Obama calls home, demands tribute, protection. Sometimes it says, "Thanks, Greek." But it always takes the bag of steaks.
One of my earliest memories as a boy at the store was that of the government men coming from City Hall. One was tall and beefy. The other was wiry. They wanted steaks.
We didn't eat red steaks at home or yellow bananas. We took home the brown bananas and the brown steaks because we couldn't sell them. But the government men liked the big, red steaks, the fat rib-eyes two to a shrink-wrapped package. You could put 20 or so in a shopping bag.
"Thanks, Greek," they'd say.
That was government.
In a place like Sioux Falls, the locals need to cajole business, which is why they send people like Dan Hindbjorgen to the recording booth and sell ads on Twin Cities radio stations. They want business and hope to gain tax revenue from relocating businesses, but to get their attention they promise a better return. It's possible that they send guys from the Sioux Falls City Hall once you actually get there, but the pitch is that you'll make more money if you move to Sioux Falls. It's about stakes, not steaks.
There is no disputing that businesses need infrastructure to help them get their products to market. No one, least of all Mitt Romney, would dispute that. And you can easily make the argument that Barack Obama and Dan Hindbjorgen are really saying the same thing, at bottom. Effective, responsive government undeniably benefits businesses.
The problem for Barack Obama is that he looks at things through the wrong end of the telescope. He is espousing a form of communitarianism, but he's not the sort to think a community might figure out how to get things organized without his ministrations. He's not really offering partnership; he's offering protection. And he doesn't see what a lot of small businesses see, which is that he is at the helm of a government that wants the bag of steaks first.
Entrepreneurs are proud and ambitious -- you can't be one unless you have those traits. And a lot of them work very hard. Back to Kass:
We didn't go to movies or out to restaurants. Everything went into the business. Uncle George and dad never bought what they could not afford. The store employed people, and the workers fed their families and educated their children and put them through college. They were good people, all of them. We worked together and worked hard, but none worked harder than the bosses.
It's the same story with so many other businesses in America, immigrants and native-born. The entrepreneurs risk everything, their homes, their children's college funds, their hearts, all for a chance at the dream: independence, and a small business of their own.
Most often, they fail and fall to the ground without a government parachute. But some get up and start again.
When I was grown and gone from home, my parents finally managed to save a little money. After all those years of hard work and denying themselves things, they had enough to buy a place in Florida and a fishing boat in retirement. Dad died only a few years later. You wouldn't call them rich. But Obama might.
And that's why the quote, even if it's incomplete, grates so much. Not surprisingly, Romney's campaign has fashioned a pretty vicious and effective ad out of it:
Dan Hindbjorgen and the folks in Sioux Falls look at business, and business people, as assets. Perhaps Barack Obama does, too. But when you listen to the voice of Obama on the ad, speaking those words, you don't hear that. Instead you hear a sneer. And that's going to hurt the president's campaign. How much? Well, here's one view, from Pat Sajak, of all people:
It's as if President Obama climbed into a tank, put on his helmet, talked about how his foray into Cambodia was seared in his memory, looked at his watch, misspelled "potato" and pardoned Richard Nixon all in the same day.Overstating the case? Perhaps. Maybe you wouldn't let a game show host write your political epitaph, but his other observation is the one that ought to chill those who support the president:
These defining moments take hold most devastatingly when they confirm what a large portion of the electorate already believes. Taken alone, it seems unfair that a single moment, an unguarded remark or a slip of the tongue can carry such weight. They're often dismissed as "gotcha" moments, but when voters are able to nod and say, "I knew it," these moments stick and do terrible damage. We have witnessed such a moment.This much is certain -- there won't be too many Americans who won't hear the words, because the Romney campaign will make sure they do. How the Obama campaign responds will matter a lot. So here's a little advice that I know won't be taken, but I'll offer it anyway. Instead of listening to David Axelrod, perhaps Barack Obama might want to pick Dan Hindbjorgen's brain a little.