What Obama didn’t say

President Obama gave a speech here in Roanoke last week in which he discussed all of the things that lay the foundation for individual success in America. Nothing he said should have been controversial:

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, is that 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.

So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, 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 or the Hoover Dam.  That’s how we invented the Internet.  That’s how we sent a man to the moon.  We rise or 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.  You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.

I sure don’t see anything for even conservatives to get upset about there. The whole notion of the American dream, after all, is that America is a land of unique opportunity for individual success. What creates that opportunity? It is not merely individual drive and determination, it is the American foundation: the ability for everyone to receive a good education, a massive public infrastructure that allows commerce to thrive, a strong middle class that provides the world’s largest market for goods and services.

But the lack of anything controversial never stops conservatives these days, who are extremely adept at manufacturing controversy. They seized on one sentence and wrenched it completely out of context: “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.” That, of course, refers to the foundation Obama was discussing: The education system, the unbelievable American system, infrastructure. It did not refer to the business itself. But that didn’t stop Fox & Friends, Rush Limbaugh and even Mitt Romney himself from claiming differently and using that line to attack Obama and his understanding of America and American business.

Romney’s take was especially craven:

The idea to say that Steve Jobs didn’t build Apple, that Henry Ford didn’t build Ford Motor, that Papa John didn’t build Papa John Pizza, that Ray Kroc didn’t build McDonald’s, that Bill Gates didn’t build Microsoft, you go on the list, that Joe and his colleagues didn’t build this enterprise, to say something like that is not just foolishness, it is insulting to every entrepreneur, every innovator in America and it’s wrong.

Of course that’s wrong. Obama didn’t say that Steve Jobs didn’t build Apple or Henry Ford didn’t build Ford Motor. What he did say was that neither Apple nor Ford could have been as successful without the things Americans did together through their government. Without the government-created technological advances, including the Internet, or taxpayer-financed roadways, neither company would have thrived to the extent it did.

This is a manufactured controversy, but it is also an enlightening one. The only way one-percenters like Romney can justify their existence and their immense wealth is to claim that they have unique value, that what they bring to the table is worth 400 or 500 times the average American. What Obama is saying is that American success is only possible because we are all in this together, and because we all work together to create the foundation for individual success.

I think Obama understands America a hell of a lot better than they do.

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