Let's be honest: If the nearest priest, minister or rabbi had uttered essentially the same words about personal merit that got President Obama in trouble recently, we'd have hardly thought twice about it.
Reminding high-achievers that they didn't make it on their own — that they're not necessarily any smarter or more hard-working than lots of other folks — is a time-honored means of cultivating the virtues of gratitude and humility, not to mention a sense of realism.
But Obama is not a priest, minister or rabbi. He's a man with his hand on the tiller of economic policy, and his attitude toward entrepreneurs, innovators and business owners in general is of major importance. So when he says, "If you've got a business, you didn't build that," it tends to grab public attention — despite the creative claims of his campaign to portray his remarks as merely indicating that business owners hadn't built "roads and bridges."
Sorry, but that's not what he said. He said they didn't build their businesses, while deprecating their savvy and hard work as the engines of success.
Now it's true, as the MaddowBlog quickly pointed out, that Mitt Romney himself made much the same point when he said "a lot of people help you in a business. Perhaps the banks, the investors. There's no question your mom and dad. Your school teachers. The people that provide roads, the fire, and the police. A lot of people help."
What Romney did not say, though, was "you didn't build" your business — and even if he had, there are two big differences between Romney saying it and the president.
First, we know Romney believes in an entrepreneurial culture. He's lived it. And he extols free enterprise all the time as the foundation of prosperity.
By contrast, Obama's background is bereft of any significant first-hand experience that might foster respect or sympathy for business owners. To the contrary, he hails from occupational niches — community activism, academia and politics — in which disdain for commerce is quite widespread.
Of course, you can be a law professor or a politician who bucks the ideological tide. Far more telling is that Obama for years has been making similar statements that suggest a decidedly low regard for commerce and the motives of those who flourish within the private sector.
One of these revealing moments occurred four years ago during his commencement address at Wesleyan University, when he exhorted graduates to take up community service. That's a worthy theme, of course, but consider how he did it.
"There's no community service requirement in the real world; no one forcing you to care," he said. "You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should buy. You can choose to narrow your concerns and live your life in a way that tries to keep your story separate from America's. But I hope you don't."
Several times elsewhere in his speech, Obama cited public sector jobs as examples of meaningful work. The candidate basically offered graduates the following choice: meaningful work in the non-profit and public sectors, on the one hand, or money-grubbing that chases big houses and nice suits. To call this a caricature would be kind.
This nation is engaged in a decisive debate about how to revive an economy mired in slow growth and meager job creati0n, so naturally we pay attention to a candidate's views of how the economy works. If Obama wants critics to stop saying he's disdainful of business, maybe he should stop providing them with evidence for the charge.
E-mail Vincent Carroll at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @vcarrollDP