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Obama and Sununu: Whose gaffe was worse?

July 18, 2012|By Jon Healey
  • President Obama waves to supporters at a fundraising event in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday.
President Obama waves to supporters at a fundraising event in Austin, Texas,… (Ralph Barrera / Austin American-Statesman…)

In the spirit of bipartisanship, I propose that Americans give both President Obama, a Democrat, and former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu, a Republican, the benefit of the doubt.

On Friday, Obama said, "If you've got a business -- you didn't build that," a remark that drew howls of derision from conservatives. Responding to Obama on Tuesday, Sununu (a surrogate for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney) said that the president should "learn how to be an American," prompting some to accuse him of playing the "birther" card.

I don't think either man revealed some deeper, darker truth about their beliefs. I think they just flubbed their lines.

COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012

In his stump speeches, Obama has made the point repeatedly that wealthy Americans should be willing to pay more in taxes because their success stems in part from the investments the public has made in education, infrastructure, research and the like. It's a meme that Harvard-professor-turned-Senate-candidate Elizabeth Warren has been advancing for a while -- the notion that nobody really does it alone in America.

Those arguments try to rebut the Republican notion that Washington, and in particular the Obama administration, is impeding the economy, not helping it. But here's how Obama put it at a campaign event Friday in Roanoke, Va.:

"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 point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together."

Had Obama uttered the word "alone" after "You didn't build that," there wouldn't be much controversy. But he didn't, rendering his remarks a slap in the face to entrepreneurs across the country. "You didn't build it" is the sort of thing you'd hear from someone who'd never tried to start a business. It says, in effect, that there's no real accomplishment in translating a clean sheet of paper into a productive entity with employees and products.

It's such an extreme statement, in other words, that I can't imagine Obama meant it that way. But Republicans such as Sununu saw a common thread between Obama's comment and his positions on healthcare reform, financial regulation, environmental protection, climate change and energy policy: an apparent belief that government is a necessary ingredient in seemingly all areas of human endeavor.

That sort of thinking seems dangerously un-American to small-government conservatives. It runs counter to the pioneer spirit, the inventors and innovators who elevate the U.S. economy, and the individuals who put their life savings at risk to start a small business.

My hunch is, that's what Sununu was thinking when he said, "The men and women all over America who have worked hard to build these businesses, their businesses, from the ground up, is how our economy became the envy of the world. It is the American way. And I wish this president would learn how to be an American."

That last sentence -- which Sununu apologized for later -- seems like a dog whistle to the folks who think Obama's birth certificate is a forgery. But I'm guessing that any overtones of birtherism are purely coincidental. Sununu, who recently criticized CNN for being "fixated" on birthers, wasn't challenging Obama's birthplace; he was challenging his belief in the American way, at least as Republicans define it.

Here's what Sununu said about Obama on Fox News earlier that day: “He has no idea how the American system functions. And we shouldn’t be surprised about that because he spent his early years in Hawaii smoking something, spent the next set of years in Indonesia, another set of years in Indonesia, and, frankly, when he came to the U.S., he worked as a community organizer, which is a socialized structure, and then got into politics in Chicago. There has been no experience in his life in which he's earned a private-sector paycheck that meant anything."

Although that's harsh, it doesn't echo the loony conspiracy theories of the birther camp. Instead, it reflects the conviction of conservative Republicans that something in Obama's experience left him profoundly anti-business. The two viewpoints intersect on the notion that there's an otherness about Obama, a "he's not like us" quality. That's pretty standard fare for presidential campaigns -- witness how Democrats point to Romney's wealth as evidence that the Republican can't relate to the typical voter. Still, Obama's comments about business don't prove that he doesn't know how to be an American. They just show he doesn't know how to be a Republican.

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