Why ‘You Didn’t Build That’ Resonates

Jonathan Chait says the president’s "you didn't build that" speech revived racial resentments about redistributive fiscal policy, partly because the president was speaking in a “black dialect.”

Maybe this was a problem with the speech, but the key problem was much simpler: The president was needlessly insulting. He wasn’t just calling on successful people to pay more in tax but was being dismissive of their accomplishments.

I agree with David Frum that the most toxic part of the speech is Barack Obama talking about the sources of success:

I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

Really? The president is always struck by people who take credit for their own successes? Obviously, every successful outcome in life -- and every failed one -- arises from a combination of internal and external factors. But the president’s tone when he said this, amused by the very idea of people taking credit for their achievements, was off-putting.

Frum mostly talks about why this statement irks rich people, but I believe it resonates badly with people at all income levels. Lots of people -- most, I hope -- are proud of something they’ve achieved in their lives and feel like that achievement owes much to their own hard work and talents. You don’t have to make over $250,000 a year to be annoyed when the president mocks people for taking credit for their achievements.

And it’s an especially jarring statement because of what it’s used to justify -- higher taxes, with the implication being that they are called for because people do not deserve their own pre-tax wealth. People are rightly unnerved by an argument that amounts to “we can tax you because you didn’t deserve this anyway.” Faced with such an argument, defending your own contribution to your success isn’t just a point of pride -- it’s an argument you must make to defend the principle that you are entitled to your own private property.

The president’s speech calls to mind a second-season West Wing episode, in which speechwriter Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) explains to the staff of some liberal house members why he won’t insert a line in President Bartlet’s upcoming speech. They want the president to attack Republican tax cut proposals as financing “private jets and swimming pools” for the wealthy. As Seaborn argues:

Henry, last fall, every time your boss got on the stump and said, "It's time for the rich to pay their fair share," I hid under a couch and changed my name. I left Gage Whitney making $400,000 a year, which means I paid twenty-seven times the national average in income tax. I paid my fair share, and the fair share of twenty-six other people. And I'm happy to 'cause that's the only way it's gonna work, and it's in my best interest that everybody be able to go to schools and drive on roads, but I don't get twenty-seven votes on Election Day. The fire department doesn't come to my house twenty-seven times faster and the water doesn't come out of my faucet twenty-seven times hotter. The top one percent of wage earners in this country pay for twenty-two percent of this country. Let's not call them names while they're doing it, is all I'm saying.

When Barack Obama has made an argument for progressive taxation that even Aaron Sorkin finds distasteful, he has erred. That’s not a problem that has anything to do with the president being black.

Chait seems taken aback by how much his post offended conservative writers. But when Chait argues the “real reason” attacks on the president are working is racial resentment (and, for good measure, that racial resentment is “the entire key to the rise of the Republican Party” since the 1960s), the implication is that complaints about the “you didn’t build that” speech are per se invalid. Chait didn’t directly accuse anybody of being a racist, but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be annoyed about his post.

It’s true that racial undertones are everywhere in American discourse. But not everything that has a racial component is principally about race. Scott Brown’s campaign mashed up “you didn’t build that” with Elizabeth Warren’s similar remarks, which share the president’s derisive tone but of course lack any African-American speaking rhythms. The Brown hit is effective -- and it shows that the president’s speech would have been problematic from the mouth of a white politician, too.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. E-mail him and follow him on Twitter.)

Read more breaking commentary from Josh Barro and other Bloomberg View columnists and editors at the Ticker.

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