The president of the United States took out after business owners earlier this week—at least owners who don’t share his particular political agenda. In a speech at Roanoke that’s now been widely disseminated and already dissected here at Catholic Vote by Tom Crowe, Barack Obama provided his own version of an answer. What struck me is how essentially unremarkable his comments were if you start breaking them down—and how their very arrogance is concealed in the comments’ plainness.
“If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own,” the president told his audience. Really? No kidding? You mean man doesn’t operate in a vacuum? Okay, I’m reeling from shock already, but let’s go on…
“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,” says Obama. Later he continued with “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.
Here again, the plainness stands out. Is there anyone who’s really convinced that everyone who owns a successful business—or for that matter has ran a successful election campaign—is smarter and hardworking than everyone else? Back when I was in college I did an interview with then-Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight, who’d won three national championships and would be inducted to the Hall of Fame shortly thereafter. I asked him who the best coaches that he’d gone up against were. It was a question he didn’t want to answer for the same reason he shunned questions that asked about his place in history—the head coach said he’d been fortunate to have the chance to coach better talent than other men in his profession, but that the other coaches were no less intelligent. I don’t think even the most devout conservative would consider Knight to be a flaming socialist for his answer, and I don’t know how many devout conservatives dispute the essential idea that it takes more than hard work and smarts alone.
Obama goes on to note that businesses benefit from highways, infrastructure, government research on the Internet, etc. All true. Is there a proposal on the table to get the government out of highway spending that I’m not aware of? If not, what’s the point of telling us this?
We come to the conclusion. “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.” If Obama found one person on the planet who disagreed with this, this statement might have been worth expending breath on in a public forum.
I generally try to focus on just taking statements as they are, because extrapolating what someone really meant usually leads us to ascribing extremes—either our worst fears or our best hopes—to the words. If we do that here, we have the president of the United States saying that success doesn’t happen in a vacuum and there are smart and hard-working people beyond those at the top of the economic ladder.
The reason I have a problem with just taking these words at face value is that they are so mind-numbingly insipid that it defies belief that a president in the midst of a heated re-election campaign wasted energy in a public forum uttering them without having a deeper meaning.
One might think that Obama is suggesting we give thanks to God for those He has put in our path. But that sort of thing is reserved for the bitter people who cling to their religion, as the president memorably put it in his 2008 campaign. Is he encouraging people just to be aware of those who helped them and to remember to give back to those same people? I suppose it’s possible if you really want to believe the best, but we come back to the notion of wondering whether a politician in a tight race really uses up his airtime on this.
Therefore we are left with just one conclusion—that Barack Obama believes a successful person owes him some kind of debt. Or at least his personal political agenda. Therein lays the supreme arrogance of his comments at Roanoke.
I’ve never been a political supporter of this president, but I have often defended his personal motivations and have felt that he’s less dishonest than a normal politician. I’ve argued repeatedly, to the consternation of some around me that the treatment Obama gets from opponents mimics that George W. Bush received from the Left—the constant assuming of the worst, the name-calling and generally childish behavior.
But it’s very difficult not to read extreme arrogance into Obama’s words at Roanoke. If he was misunderstood—which I doubt, given the silence from the White House in the face of the ensuing tempest—then clarify. Otherwise, maybe it’s time he got over himself.
Dan Flaherty is the author of Fulcrum, an Irish Catholic novel set in postwar Boston with a traditional Democratic mayoral campaign at its heart, and he is the editor-in-chief of TheSportsNotebook.com.