Obama’s epic gaffe—“If you got a business, you didn’t build that; somebody else made that happen”—is showing no signs of going away any time soon. It is the gaffe that keeps on giving. It has become a multiple news cycle event, and is prompting frantic efforts from Obama defenders, borrowing the best techniques of postmodernism, to explain why the “context” of the remark shows Obama didn’t mean what every sentient being knows he meant fully: that government is the source of all good things in our life, and as such we need much more of it from him. It has become his “supermarket scanner” moment, showing how, like President George H.W. Bush’s misreported episode in 1992, he is out of touch with the real world.
I think a better comparison that explains why this won’t go away easily is with President Gerald Ford’s famous 1976 debate gaffe where he said “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” It didn’t matter one bit that the background “context” of Ford’s remark was a repudiation of the so-called non-existent “Sonnenfeldt doctrine” that supposedly had the U.S. acknowledging the legitimacy of Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe. It was part of the final farce of détente in the 1970s, and connected to the ambiguity of the Helsinki Accords of 1975. Ford was trying to argue that the U.S. regarded Poland and other “captive nations” of Eastern Europe to be fully sovereign, even if, um, there were 50 Soviet divisions parked inside their borders. The Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco issued a statement bitterly criticizing Ford: “In reality Ford’s slip merely comes down to the fact that he said out loud what he thinks—or, rather, what Kissinger and Sonnenfeldt think for him.” Likewise, we can say that Obama’s gaffe merely comes down to the fact that he says out loud what Elizabeth Warren and the faculty rooms of America think for him. It took Ford more than a week to acknowledge that he misspoke, and by then it was too late. That slip might well have cost Ford the close 1976 election.
Ford’s not-so-clever attempt at diplomatic hair-splitting didn’t work any better than Obama and his defenders arguing today that Obama was merely trying to highlight the importance of those basic functions of government, such as infrastructure and the rule of law, that make commerce possible. Okay—let’s have that debate, and ask what business needs from government today. Not high-speed rail in California (or anywhere else), investments in “green energy,” massive regulatory uncertainty from the EPA and Dodd-Frank, a health care law expanding by the day as the regulators figure it out, massive financial uncertainty from taxes set to explode in January, and a permit-process-from-hell to build anything bigger than an outhouse. That’s just for starters. I note that Obama hasn’t even met with his highly touted Jobs Council for more than six months now, which shows how unserious he is about all of this. Bring it on.