The Corner

Obama’s ‘Gaffe,’ History and Context

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.

Stanley Kurtz — Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More
Film & TV

Black Panther’s Circle of Hype

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first infantilizes its audience, then banalizes it, and, finally, controls it through marketing. This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its ... Read More