1. Here is one reason I think the “You didn’t build that” issue is proving so hard to shake: It comes across like special pleading and it is demeaning to disfavored social groups. Obama describes the success of businessmen and women as a matter of luck (“a lot of people work hard”) while those who produce government services (transportation agencies, teachers, and government employees generally) are helpful and socially necessary. What small businessmen get is the product of luck. What the fellow who lives at the White House gets is just. It sounds familiar. When I first heard the speech it reminded me of William Jennings Bryan’s speech where he said “I tell you that the great cities rest upon these broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.” Bryan was not a notable hit with the urban working classes. That was what you get when you suggest that a social group is a parasitic. Obama is having so much trouble talking his way out of this because his argument smells like BS. Obstetricians could demand that the government divert to them a larger share of the national income because, if you have your own business, “you didn’t deliver yourself.” Pharmacists could demand a retroactive drug-use surcharge on all Americans because young Bill Gates might have died from an infected splinter wound so therefore all pharmacists (because of their centrality to computing industry) deserve more money. Some farmers actually made this argument explicit in the later 1800s with the slogan ”I feed you all.” I think this Romney ad (“didn’t build that”) is pretty effective. The best part of the ad is that it takes on the implicit arguments in Obama’s speech. You have Obama’s speech “in context” explaining the success of businesspeople is only a step up from buying a winning lottery ticket and that this somehow justifies whatever level of government spending Obama decides is optimal. Then you have the businesspeople looking back at Obama in contempt and seeing through the BS-artist.
2. So since Obama is having some tough moments, naturally one of his allies is accusing the Republicans of playing on white racism. I wonder if Jonathan Chait has a special button on his keyboard that produces the sentence “The entire key to the rise of the Republican Party from the mid-sixties through the nineties was that white Americans came to see the Democrats as taking money from the hard-working white middle class and giving it to a lazy black underclass” whenever he senses Obama is in any trouble. The left-of-center gratuitously injects accusations of racism into these kinds of situations for two reasons:
a) Hey, maybe it will change the subject.
b) It will hopefully produce a siege mentality among nonwhite voters and maintain Democrat margins among those groups.
There are lots of African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans out there who have either built their own businesses or are closely related to those who have. They might not look to kindly on a guy who never ran a business suggesting that what they built was built on luck as a way of arguing that more of the national income should come under his control.
Update: Ramesh Punnuru made a similar argument a while back in response to comments made by Elizabeth Warren.