With partisans rushing to either defend, distort, or chew on the “deeper meaning” of President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” remark last weekend in Roanoke, Va., everyone seems to have forgotten the reason Obama was speaking in the first place: to persuade people to vote for him.
If Obama had been talking to an Ayn Rand book club, say, or the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, the hectoring tone conveyed by “You didn’t build that” might have made sense. But let’s imagine a fence-sitting independent voter who owns a small business — how did Obama expect such a voter to react to his reasoning, however defensible on its merits?
A more persuasive version of Obama’s speech might have sounded something more like:
Look, no one wants to pay higher taxes. But the fact is, we’ve got out-of-control deficits and crumbling infrastructure right now. I’m asking the most fortunate among us to take a small hit in the short run so that we’re all better off in the long run. The genius and enterprise of our businessmen and entrepreneurs will be for naught if we can’t educate our citizens; if our electricity grid and transportation networks continue to deteriorate; if we fall behind on basic social provisions like a clean drinking-water system. Everyone, Republican and Democrat and independent, liberal and conservative, agrees that we need these things in order to remain a prosperous nation.
Whether you agree substantively or not, I’m sure you get the point.
Whatever Obama said, or meant to say, it seems to me the way he chose to frame his argument was rhetorically disastrous on its face.