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Obama’s ‘Gaffe,’ History and Context



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As President Obama begins to hit back at Mitt Romney’s supposedly out-of-context use of his “You didn’t build that” remark, let’s remember that this was no isolated outburst. Consider a comment Obama made during his first campaign for office in 1995. Obama was teaching classes in community organizing for ACORN and the Centers for New Horizons. A reporter for the Chicago Reader sat in on one of his New Horizons classes and heard Obama say this:

In America we have this strong bias toward individual action. You know, we idolize the John Wayne hero who comes in to correct things with both guns blazing. But individual actions, individual dreams, are not sufficient. We must unite in collective action, build collective institutions and organizations.

Obama’s defenders argue that his “You didn’t build that” remark was just a clumsy attempt to make the obvious point that both government and the individual play a role in getting things done. Certainly, Obama’s 1995 comment leaves a place for both individual and collective action. Yet it’s also clear that Obama’s early remark paints the traditional American balance between individual and collective action as way off. He treats classic American “John Wayne” individualism as a limiting and unfortunate “bias.” Critics of the president’s “You didn’t build that” remark say it puts him at odds with fundamental American traditions. Obama’s statement in 1995 suggests that he himself takes his point of view as a criticism of traditional American thinking about individual achievement.

The context confirms this. The Centers for New Horizons, which had invited Obama to teach, was run by Sokoni Karanja, a close colleague of Obama and a fellow member of Jeremiah Wright’s congregation. Karanja attributes the dysfunctions of the African-American community to American capitalism and sees a more collectivist framework as the solution. It is a view Karanja shares with Reverend Wright. Some years after Karanja founded the Centers for New Horizons, Obama and Karanja co-founded a community organizer training institute called the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, to further advance these views.

So when Obama criticized traditional American ideas about individual achievement at a community organizing class at one of Karanja’s centers, he was putting forward a well-considered point of view entirely consistent with that of the sponsoring institution, run by his close colleague. From the looks of things, moreover, from 1995 to the present, Obama’s ideology hasn’t changed.



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