July 27, 2012

The Context of the President's Context

Justin Katz

It's intriguing to observe the telescoping nature of the "context" to which folks are referring when discussing President Obama's infamous Friday the 13th Roanoake speech. The damning two sentences continue to be:

If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

The inferred meaning is that somebody else should get credit for the business that you built. The president's defenders introduce the entire paragraph and the next, arguing that the context shows Obama's statement to have been that business owners didn't build the infrastructure on which their businesses rely:
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.

The critics expand the text in the opposite direction, to the paragraph before, arguing that the context is, if anything, worse than the gaffe, mainly because of the preachy, scornful tone:
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. 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.

At this point, as I've argued (and continue to believe), the president's defenders are probably correct on the grammatical point of the key sentence, but his detractors have the better case on the context. In response, a liberal commenter on Anchor Rising criticized me for not including the whole speech. And happy, as ever, to comply, I took a closer look and did indeed come to a striking conclusion: Obama's context is even worse than I'd thought.

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Can we please stop arguing about what we think he might have meant and start discussing the actual policies that have been proposed?

The whole "What did Obama/Romney/[Insert Candidate Here] really mean?" debate is a distraction from the real world issues that people face.

Posted by: Pardon at July 27, 2012 1:35 PM

I disagree. It's relevant because it relates exactly to the policies... economics, ObamaCare, taxes, debt ceiling. The President is articulating a vision in which the government guarantees a degree of subsistence+ existence; Mitt Romney is the champion (however grudging, for some) of a vision in which the government leaves the people to establish their own lives, with all the risk that entails.

A critical point, in that, is that the supposed guarantee for which people are willing to sacrifice freedom and greater opportunity is illusory.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 27, 2012 1:40 PM

Jon Stewart destroys Romney's you didn't build that attack on Obama


Funny video...enjoy

Posted by: Sammy in Arizona at July 27, 2012 5:55 PM

Hussein's plan is to confiscate adults (the 45% who work) wealth, build roads,etc. with it and then say you didn't build it. His puke speech is working so well he is now 5 pts. behind Romney nationally. Watch for the clarifications and denials come crashing in. "Teleprompter Malfunction" no doubt.

Posted by: ANTHONY at July 27, 2012 6:06 PM

Actually, that's an excellent example of exactly the "telescoping nature of the 'context.'" Basically, Stewart uses the Fox News morning show's political ineptitude to tar Mitt Romney, thus allowing himself to pretend the more substantive debate.

Thanks, Sammy, for illustrating the damage that Jon Stewart can do to real discourse by tiptoeing along the line between political debate and entertainment.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 27, 2012 6:09 PM

No surpriese here as EVERY obama statement comes with an expiration date.

Posted by: dave at July 28, 2012 7:48 AM

What President Obama said is a bitter pill to swallow for every did it all myself cuz I'm da man person out there. Without civilization, in our present form "the government," the only hard work and success that would natter would be putting a roof over your head and some food in your mouth.

The sheer volume of unmotivated, disgruntled, "me" generation masses would quickly turn this place into a battlefield the likes of which we can only imagine without the bribes and payoffs from "the government" keeping them in check. Or checks, the first of every month.

Pretty dumb thing for the POTUS to say though, the best looking least opinionated drone that the puppeteers can finance will ultimately be successful.

Posted by: michael at July 28, 2012 10:22 AM

Overlooked in all this is another central (though equal and opposite) "truth" of the liberal/left worldview....if you failed?...if you didn't get the job or promotion you wanted?...."somebody else did that!". . .

Just as your success isn't really yours, your failure isn't really YOUR failure; it's society's fault on account of racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, Wall St. cronyism, etc., etc. Thus, society (the author of your failure) owes you recompense for your failure!

Negation of individual free will and accountability is the touchstone of contemporary left/liberalism.

Posted by: brassband at July 28, 2012 2:09 PM

I think the comments that you have referenced by our President are the stupidest of his presidency. Not for partisan campaign reasons but for governing reasons. He and his administration are going to have to live with that. I always thought there was a cockiness to him. And a kind of religious certitude- a trait that has seemed to have afflicted all of our recent presidents.

Posted by: David S at July 28, 2012 9:16 PM

@David S-very well said-what BTW do you consider recent?I never got this attitude from Gerald Ford.I always thought that he brought a certain welcome humility to the position,most likely because he was not elected to national office and knew it.
I read a description of a meeting a stamp dealer had with him to buy his collection and the dealer said Ford was the most pleasant and least egotistical man imaginable.

Posted by: joe bernstein at July 28, 2012 9:43 PM

Great point. Those people who have failed in society for the most part used the same education system and infrastructure as those who have had successes. I don't here the POTUS taking responsibility for them.

Posted by: Max D at July 28, 2012 11:22 PM

"Do Americans want the promised land of guaranteed Just Enough presented to Julia and the audience in Roanoake, or do they still believe that the dynamism of a risk-taking population ultimately improves everybody’s lives?"

Justin just adds to the stupidity of the great debate about what he said and in which context he said it. Who cares? It is probably as simple as the President going off script and taking a shot at some of those wealthy successful types who are secretly donating millions of dollars to be used to defeat him in November.
Justin writes of "the dynamism of a risk-taking population" Does he include police officers and firefighters as risk takers ? Does he include those who join the military? What about those who choose to work in professions that will not produce the kind of financial success that private business can produce.? Are the only risk takers the one's who risk their cash? I probably know more about that than Justin does but the only thing I find offensive about the President's remarks is that he handed his enemies a club to beat him with.

Posted by: Phil at July 29, 2012 8:39 AM

Phil - The 0.01% chance that an individual will die as a firefighter or police officer in exchange for ironclad job security and a smorgasbord of public benefits and mid-life pension that most private sector workers couldn't even dream of isn't the same thing as the risk individuals take by spending their life savings to start a business and become financially self-sufficient, which could lose them everything. The fact that you equate the two situations is further evidence that you, like Obama, just don't get how a healthy society and economy are supposed to operate. Your side hobby catching quahogs on the weekend while you work for the public unions, or whatever it is you actually do, isn't the same as taking a real risk by opening a business with employees, customers, and rent to pay. I don't pretend that I've taken that risk personally (although I did invest heavily in my professional education), but I understand the importance of not vilifying and burdening those who do. What progressives fail to grasp is that the only society without significant risk is one in which everyone is equally poor and attempting to eliminate risk from society is the surest way to get there.

Posted by: Dan at July 29, 2012 10:20 AM


You miss the point in a very telling way. The key phrase isn't "risk taking" but "population" and "everybody." Not everybody has to take financial risks in a society, but the society as a whole should encourage that dynamism.

My core complaint against the president is that he divides us versus them in a way that aligns with politically targeted constituencies. Yes, the risk-taking small businesses rely on the activities of everybody else, but everybody else relies on the entrepreneurs.

Contrary to Obama and progressives more generally, we should consider ourselves to be a cohesive society, with multiple ways of interacting (i.e., without government involvement) and various institutions and processes ultimately aligning with human nature.

Everybody has their place, and my point is that we're strangling those who choose the place of keeping the economic engine going.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 29, 2012 10:49 AM

Yes in the old Russia there was no risk. The State planned everything for you. You were all "equal" as in equally poor. Hussein would be much more comfortable in Albania,Cuba or Somalia. There he could lecture about not building a freakin' thing as you cannot build a freakin' thing. The Tinhorn POTUS was born in the wrong country (or was he?). He is much better suited to a banana republic that he so admires.

Posted by: ANTHONY at July 29, 2012 1:08 PM

I'm glad ANTHONY brought up Russia. For decades the United States spent billions on defense to secure a free market system which benefited the capitalists in the US and western Europe. Former enemy states Japan and Germany were rebuilt after the war. The Government of the US was responsible for this along with those who fought the wars and those who paid their taxes. Asking those who have benefited the most from these huge military expenditures to pay their share of taxes seems to me to be only fair. Justin answers my post by writing this:
"Yes, the risk-taking small businesses rely on the activities of everybody else, but everybody else relies on the entrepreneurs."
I agree mostly with this. But what do you think of the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. Is it not this situation which results in strangling those who may be the job creators now and in the future. Dan mentions his educational costs and I think he reminds us that those who are not wealthy bear an incredibly costly burden for private education as those costs rise in proportion to the profit taking of the few. It has not always been this way. As states struggle with budgets less funding for public education only adds to the difficulty of the shrinking middle class's ability to add to Justin's idea of dynamism.

Posted by: Phil at July 29, 2012 9:53 PM

Phil - The cost of higher education has skyrocketed primarily because of Stafford Loans and Pell Grants - progressive-minded programs intended to "help everyone afford college." Why is it that every time progressives try to help people, it ends up pushing them farther into debt and dependency? If government had never become involved in higher education, I would be debt-free right now, but instead I owe the Federal government many thousands of dollars. The average college grad now owes over 30k, primarily to Uncle Sam. If you want to do everyone a favor, stay out of the economy with your sloppy redistribution schemes. We've been handing out welfare, food, housing, and health care for half a century and we have just as many poor.

Posted by: Dan at July 29, 2012 10:19 PM


I'd say, first, that very few entrepreneurs and small business owners are among the dreaded "few." I daresay the few would be more were it not for regulatory and other government schemes that raise the barrier to entry and restrict innovations that might displace established players.

As for public education, beyond seconding Dan's higher-ed complaint, I'd say that the education budgets that vex municipalities are a consequence not of a failure to tax the rich, but of more government mandates and union-inflated compensation. In Tiverton, for example, the schools' budget has just about doubled in the past 10 years, even as the enrollment has dropped in the double digits and the median household income of the town has slipped considerably.

"Less funding" for education is manifestly a myth.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 29, 2012 10:46 PM

"My core complaint against the president is that he divides us versus them in a way that aligns with politically targeted constituencies."

Well he aint the only one. Justin began his "Obamanation" pieces in Nov. 2008. Right after the election the posts under a clearly biased heading started to appear and have not abated. Justin did not wait until the President actually began his Presidency . He was not alone in this. The republicans in Congress hunkered down and started to play obstructionist while their motley jesters made the most of the Town Hall meetings across the country.

Posted by: Phil at July 30, 2012 7:13 AM

Note what you're doing, though, and how well it plays into the hands of the political class: I'm complaining about a powerful political figure dividing the American people from each other for his own political game. You liken that to my trying to divide the American people from a particular, powerful political figure. Those are very different things, and if liberals weren't blinded by partisanship and ideology, they'd find the distinction very significant.

What is now blindingly clear (although it was clear to many back in 2008) is that "yes we can" really meant that "our" part was to vote for "him," and he and his other much-smarter (well, richer, anyway) allies would do the miracle working.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 30, 2012 9:46 AM

Here we go-Phil referring to town hall protesters as "motley jesters"because they opposed Obama's policies-I guess if they were left wingers he'd call them "grass roots"and express simpering admiration.Leftists have always needed a "party line"to know what they were supposed to think on any given issue on any given day.

Posted by: joe bernstein at July 30, 2012 10:12 AM

" Justin began his "Obamanation" pieces in Nov. 2008."

What about the President's policies do you know now that we didn't know back in November 2008? Are you all of a sudden shocked that his policies have been a failure? Under his rule, the nation is further fractured, hope is gone, and the car is still in the ditch. He's had the keys for almost four years. Time to give the keys back.

Posted by: Max D at July 30, 2012 10:34 AM

Yes the youth have heard the message from our esteemed Tinhorn would be dictator. This just in from Chicago the land of the lawless (and Obunko & Rahm). "You didn't build that....you freakin' steal it!"


Posted by: ANTHONY at July 30, 2012 11:54 AM

The Clinton-Obama nexus at the second tier level is amazing.It seems like the "bitter"primary fight was a sparring match for public consumption.They sure made up fast.

Posted by: joe bernstein at July 30, 2012 1:19 PM

i didn't know that all crime in chicago was the president's fault. nice try justin. my comments about your bias against this president beginning before he had even taken office shows your ideological and partisan rigidity. not wanting to give a person a chance , not even a short grace period does contribute to dividing a country along partisan political lines. but that's what you're being paid to do.

Posted by: Phil at July 30, 2012 6:14 PM

Well, I've had to edit this comment a few times, because your resorting to ad hominem suggests that you haven't been reading very closely at all, and the frustration makes the urge toward expletives very strong.

First, when Obama was elected, I was being paid to renovate a kitchen in Newport. Second, even with regard to what I'm paid to do now (which is almost entirely state focused), it is manifestly unfair to accuse me of partisanship. I'm ideological, perhaps, but not partisan.

Be that as it may, it was crystal clear who Obama was, even back then (and even despite his studious lack of a record and abysmal biographical vetting by the media). I did express hope that he would grow in office; he has not. Do you criticize those who thought he was the Second Coming, based on as little information (or less) than I had? Of course not.

Let's not forget the video that sparked the first post in this category:

I didn't used to think you beneath serious response. Thinking I may have to revise.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 30, 2012 6:40 PM

posted June 2008, 7 months before Obama took office ?
The Knuckle-Bumping Messiah
Justin Katz
Perhaps it's because I'm a populist or an elitist (pick one), but I find images of Barack and Michelle (Bachelle?) fist-bumping nauseating. The statement that I read in it — albeit, between the lines — is "if we do this, people will think we're regular folk, just like them." And why should this well-to-do, upper-crust, non-entertainment-industry couple get away with it? Well, because their skin is dark.

Posted by: Sammy in Arizona at July 30, 2012 7:41 PM

@Phil-wanna explain the justification for the Nobel Peace Prize?This oughta bee good.

Posted by: joe bernstein at July 30, 2012 8:05 PM

sammy can get the Turd in the Punchbowl Award for all he brings to the discussion

Posted by: joe bernstein at July 30, 2012 10:25 PM

So you don't like be called a partisan. O.K. But you are a reliable Republican vote and much more aligned with conservative and religious elements of the national Republican party than any other political party. No? You can be convinced that Obama is what you thought he was back in 2008 and use an offensive heading when writing frequently and always negatively about the elected President. But don't now step back and assume the posture of the objective observer and not expect to get called on it. You write: "I did express hope that he would grow in office; he has not." Justin if he had grown as you say what would the "Obamanation" heading had changed to?

"Do you criticize those who thought he was the Second Coming, based on as little information (or less) than I had? Of course not."

No. Why would I? If they are registered voters who am I to criticize the way they vote.

"I didn't used to think you beneath serious response. Thinking I may have to revise."

There you go again as your most cherished President famously said. I could find at least a half dozen times you have expressed similar sentiments towards me and my comments here.

Posted by: Phil at July 31, 2012 7:28 AM

Never called you a paid hack, Phil. Wrong on many things, but I don't recall challenging your integrity ever. (Although I may only be misremembering.)

If Obama had changed as I had expressed hope... that is, if he had been what even some conservatives deluded themselves into believing not only possible, but likely, a true cross-aisle-working moderate... I absolutely have acknowledged my erroneous preconceptions.

But that if did not come to pass.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 31, 2012 8:23 AM

I reread my comments and do regret the line about your work. I am sorry that you interpreted them as an attack on your integrity.

Posted by: Phil at July 31, 2012 10:08 AM

Thank you. I'm sorry I almost swore at you ;o)

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 31, 2012 10:14 AM
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