While most Americans do not approve of Barack Obama’s record in public service — to be fair, many of his critics are both unemployed and deeply in debt — the president may have just proven himself to be the finest self-servant in the land. President Obama’s now infamous “You Didn’t Build That” speech charged that “somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.” So who did? The government, according to Mr. Obama: the institution he happens to embody.
The president’s supporters jumped quickly to his aid and alleged that Governor Romney’s campaign took Obama’s statement out of context. The “that,” they claimed, referred to the “roads and bridges” of the previous sentence. This line of argument is incorrect. It does not take a grammarian to observe that “that” is a singular demonstrative pronoun. This sort of pronoun can only refer to a singular noun such as, say, “a business.” “That” would not befit the phrase “roads and bridges.” Such a reference would instead require a plural demonstrative pronoun like “those.” Mr. Obama, the former university professor, chose “that.”
When the “that” excuse fell flat, the professional aggrievement industry, to no one’s surprise, accused Governor Romney and his supporters of racism. New York Magazine’s ever-excitable Jonathan Chait explained that voters took issue with President Obama’s speech because “he’s not talking in his normal voice but in a ‘black dialect.’” Mr. Chait must have missed the more compelling pronoun argument because he was too entranced by the melody of President Obama’s words to hear or understand their meaning.
No, President Obama said what he meant and meant what he said, and it comes as no surprise. After all, the man wrote his first memoir with no professional accomplishments to his name at the age of 33. Mr. Obama’s only subsequent published work (aside from a children’s picture book), throughout 12 years lecturing as a university professor, is another book about himself. After sidelining economic recovery to pass a perpetually unpopular health care law, ignoring the suggestions of the deficit commission that he himself appointed, and neglecting to assemble his own jobs council for six months and counting after three failed “summers of recovery” and with an unemployment rate that has not fallen below 8% since he entered office, how does Obama rank his presidency? Why, on par with any in history, “with the possible exceptions of Johnson, F.D.R., and Lincoln.”
Now our solipsist-in-chief has taken credit for the business you think you built. Such self-aggrandizement has become the hallmark of this imperial presidency. From oil production and the auto industry to bank bailouts and military strength, President Obama has taken credit for the success of policies initiated by his predecessor while at the same time blaming his failures on Japanese tsunamis and, predictably, the rich.
President Obama’s re-election campaign has become a parody of its chief’s own self-absorption, from its fictitious “Life of Julia,” dependent on her great leader from cradle to grave, to its Orwellian “Attack Watch,” designed to swiftly squash political dissent through the Internet. (I would be remiss not to wonder at what words President Obama has for Al Gore on this topic.)
These campaign missteps have until now amounted to little more than mere gaffes. Obama’s erroneous claims that “the private sector is doing fine” and “we tried our plan, and it worked” are the desperate bluster of a failed president and an exasperated campaign. This latest blunder is something altogether different. In all its perverse context, “you didn’t build that” is an assault on the American spirit, an indignity to the self-made man, and a slap in the face to the voters who elected him. Maybe Mr. Obama is counting on those roads and bridges to give him a second term.
Michael Knowles is an actor and political spokesman.