The president has had yet another statement lifted out of context in an attempt to portray this administration as "hostile" to business. At first glance, the lifted quote is impossible to understand without added editorial context, and even then it is parsed in such a way by his critics to elicit a "huh?"
The story is the president, while addressing an audience in Roanoke, Va., was speaking about private initiative and public support. I guess it goes back to his community organizing days. At least that is what his critics seized on, saying among other things that never having built anything himself, it's no wonder he could be so callous and out of touch. I'm still stuck at "huh?"
The point underneath all this brouhaha is actually an important one and if Obama's critics took a moment to listen carefully, they might realize how a discussion could begin around his observation. When I went back and read the whole quote, here's the simple message I took away: "No man is an island." As we consider our country's future direction in these turbulent times, this might be a good point of reference.
Did Bill Gates build Microsoft all on his own? What about the beloved Steve Jobs? You mean Apple is (was) a one-man effort? Somebody should let Apple's shareholders in on that little secret. We all know -- though many of us these days seem to forget -- they built their enormous personal successes with a lot of help. That much I understood from Obama's remarks.
This is what I think the president was trying to say. Entrepreneurs are the catalyst in a long chain reaction that cannot occur, will not occur, and cannot succeed without their key contributions -- but without the rest of the components of the reaction, a catalyst is impotent. No one builds a highly successful engine of commerce without a lot of indirect investment by others. That would be all of us, the community at large. I guess he gets that from his days as a community organizer.
Even a brief review of this administration's policies would reveal its commitment to investing in some critical sectors. Those investments include a well-educated work force (not to mention well-educated entrepreneurs) a modern and well-maintained infrastructure, basic research and development centers (including public universities), a healthy workforce with the buying power and financial security to purchase the products they produce. What's un-American about that?
Henry Ford understood that concept and nobody has ever accused him of being a Socialist or an anti-business liberal. Without public investment no entrepreneur, whether they run a huge global high-tech company or a 10-person woodworking operation (like me) can turn a profit, let alone build an economy. That is an important point upon which to build a national discussion around our shared beliefs and common values. I guess the President got that from his days as a community organizer, too.
As I make my way around the area that surrounds New York City, I am reminded of how much I depend on the investments my grandfather's generation made. I drive over bridges and under overpasses on key viaducts that connect this entire metro area and I am struck by the decay and ramshackle state of our 1930s-era physical plant. Some of my customers commute to New York City on a rail system my great-grandfather started and my grandfather finished. It might be a good time to talk about an upgrade.
The other day, walking my dog on a very hot afternoon, I came upon a classic suburban scene. A playground filled with 10- and 11-year-old future Olympians. Pulled up to the curb was a full-sized SUV, its engine idling, its sole occupant a 40-something mom. The AC on, peering into a personal device, utterly disconnected from record-high temperatures -- or, for that matter, her own child's play -- she was in her own world.
That disconnect could be a metaphor for what ails us: our mistaken belief that in the soft glow of our devices, wrapped in our steel and plastic shields, we are islands. We are seduced into believing we are dependent on our own initiative, our own buying power, our own ability to protect ourselves from an increasingly challenging, even hostile world. All we need do is secure the perimeter and peer into the blissful virtual world we have created.
I think Obama was onto something: no man or woman, no business or enterprise, is an island. We get where we are going, successful or not, with a good deal of help. This would be a good time for a conversation about how we balance enterprise and community, growth and sustainability, freedom and security.
The future is a scary place with incredible challenges. The private sector -- our entrepreneurial drive, innovation and high-risk investment -- is critical to addressing those challenges. So, equally, is our investment in community -- the "all of us together" part, where we tithe a little of our personal success to ensure our communities remain vital.
Both parts are essential. We are living in a time when pundits are all too happy to put them in contrast, pushing people to take sides when we should be standing together. I think that's a conversation worth having.
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