In what has become known as the “You didn't build that” speech, President Obama on July 13 in Omaha, Neb., may have inadvertently created the defining moment for this presidential election, at which the dividing line between him and challenger Mitt Romney became bright and clear.
“If you've got a business – you didn't build that,” the president said. “Somebody else made that happen.” Republicans have spent all week alternately vilifying and ridiculing the speech, which they say shows the president's obvious anti-business bias and utter disdain for individual effort and achievement. Mitt Romney, who at times had seemed unclear on what message to send to voters, found his voice as the champion of entrepreneurship and liberty.
Such a furor erupted that continuing to ignore the fallout – as the White House did for the first few days – was impossible. But a mixed message was sent. Some national Democratic leaders said Obama had been quoted out of context; others said he didn't mean what he said. Obama himself finally tried to backtrack: Hey, I was just talking about roads and bridges, so what's the big deal?
But clearly he was speaking about more than infrastructure. Obama is the epitome of progressivism, a philosophy that values the group dynamic far more than the individual. We are all in this together, and we might let keep some of what you earn, but beyond that, you owe it to the group.
And Romney's reaction has given us very clear alternatives: the individual or the group. Neither is ever completely ascendant in this country, but it's hard to argue that in the last 100 years pathological individuality has been a problem. The collective, however, has been getting stronger every year. This year, we might find out if American voters think it has gotten too strong.