President Obama’s horrendous political gaffe last week—“You didn’t build that”—triggered the same reaction I had when he insisted on pushing through Obamacare. Then, I had the creepy feeling that I was living in an occupied country. American politics didn’t work that way. Neither Democrats nor Republicans had ever forced through a transformative piece of legislation without substantial bipartisan support. A major American politician had never (to my knowledge) been indifferent to the kind of voter sentiment so clearly expressed in the Massachusetts senatorial election.
“You didn’t build that” is another example of the president’s tone-deafness when it comes to the music of the American culture. The phrase is not taken out of context. It didn’t come after a celebration of the inventiveness and risk taking of individual Americans that has made this country great. The president gave the mildest of acknowledgements to the role of the individual, followed by a paragraph of examples that cast American history as a series of collective accomplishments.
There’s a standard way for Americans to celebrate accomplishment. First, we call an individual onto the stage and say what great things that person has done. Then that person gives a thank-you speech that begins “I couldn’t have done this without…” and a list of people who helped along the way. That’s the way we’ve always done it. Everyone knows we all get help in life (and sometimes just get lucky). But we have always started with the individual and then worked out. It is not part of the American mindset to begin with the collective and admonish individuals for thinking too highly of their contribution.
That brings me back to the creepiness of it all. It is as if a Dutch politician—an intelligent, well-meaning Dutch politician—were somehow running for the American presidency, but bringing with him the Rawlsian, social-democratic ethos that, in the Netherlands, is the natural way to talk about a properly run society. We would listen to him and say to ourselves, “He doesn’t get this country.” That’s the thing about Obama. Time and again, he does things and says things that are un-American. Not evil. Not anti-American. Just un-American.