"If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. ... Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business — you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."
—President Barack Obama
Remember when Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren charged that "there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody"? That gratuitous shot at American individualism generated a storm of criticism that continues to this day.
But a recent series of speeches by President Obama has trumped Ms. Warren. The president's aggressive rhetoric (as recently repeated in the above quote in Roanoke, Va.) likewise asserts that Horatio Alger stories are indeed a work of fiction; that nobody is a real self-made man (or woman) because everybody needs help along life's long and winding road to success.
The president's obvious enthusiasm for this narrative provides insight into how he views American enterprise circa 2012. More importantly, such language provides further context into why and how the president seeks to transform our market economy and culture.
Of course, no person achieves success in a given field or endeavor without some help from the greater society. To paraphrase Hillary Clinton, it's all about the "village." And Barack Obama's village (and career) was filled with older mentors and friends willing to take young Barack under their wing. That these individuals were of a far-left mindset is a matter of fact. The likes of anti-war activist Bill Ayers, Professor Derrick Bell, poet Frank Marshall Davis, and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright are but a sampling of those who mentored or influenced the charismatic young lawyer with serious political aspirations.
The resulting Obama worldview interprets "help" in an expansive way, not the short-term safety net role a majority of Americans still see as government's appropriate role. Such is the value system of so many academics, clergy and community activists. These folks recruit others of like mind in order to bring about cultural change to a "broken" America they see as chauvinistic, racist, imperialistic and greedy. The Lions Club it is certainly not, but more like a bunch of countercultural enthusiasts with a burning desire to expand federal power into every nook and cranny of the U.S. economy. For them, it's less about an even playing field and more about guaranteed results. The comparisons to a European Social Democrat economic model follow rather easily.
What is absent in this world is the romantic notion of good old-fashioned entrepreneurship; of self-reliant individuals willing to take a risk in order to live the American dream. This more traditional narrative emphasizes individual initiative and a demonstrated willingness to lose, the better to get back up and try again. The thought that simply entering the arena is enough to generate a reward or a guaranteed result is antithetical to this crowd; it (generally) views government as an impediment to success, not a preferred option whenever life throws us a curve ball.
All of us are formed by our life experiences — most particularly, our youthful ones. Most of these lessons remain with us throughout adulthood. They help form our viewpoints and opinions, our philosophical leanings and partisan identification.
And so this president arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. with a healthy regard for social activism and governmental power; not so much the role of individuals in creating wealth and upward mobility. The invective regularly directed against the role of private equity is one result. So are the not-too-subtle attacks directed against Mitt Romney's personal wealth. And so is the false narrative regularly launched against the small business owners of our country. Most make good money but are not rich. They work hard and expect others to do the same. And they kind of identify with ol' Horatio's stories, too.
Millions of small business people took huge risks to live the American dream. Their stories offer hope to so many with little more than a dream — and an idea. The president should think twice before he (again) degrades the very people who pay the federal government's freight.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding, the author of "Turn this Car Around" — a book about national politics — and Maryland chairman for the Romney presidential campaign. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.