Obama's "You Didn't Build That" Speech Out of Sync With American Public Opinion


In a campaign stump speech in Roanoke, Virginia last Friday, President Obama clearly revealed that he believes individual success in this country is largely driven by luck and other people, rather than hard work, ingenuity, or productivity. (The speech is similar to a 2011 speech by Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, condemning individualism.)

Obama's claim is in stark contrast with what most of the public thinks. Since polls first began asking about this, upwards of 60 percent of Americans believe hard work matters more than lucky breaks, inheritance, or connections in determining success and wealth.

 Obama declared: "If you've been successful you didn't get there on your own." He reasons, "I'm always struck by people who think 'well, it must be because I was just so smart'. There are a lot of smart people out there!  'It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.' Let me tell you something—there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there!"

To be clear, Obama does concede that individuals matter, but he says their choices are less important than what others do for them. 

The president's reasoning might be described in the academic literature as one with a "low internal locus of control," assuming that luck and environment matter most. For instance, a student who did poorly on a test would assume the test was too difficult, or the teacher was incompetent; if this student did well she would conclude the test was too easy or she was lucky.

An individual with a "high internal locus of control" believes she can influence her success. If she did poorly on a school test, she may conclude that she did not study hard enough, if she did well, she would attribute this to good study habits. Clearly both environment and choice matter, but what someone believes matters most reveals a great deal about how they perceive the economic system more generally.

Survey researchers have used various survey questions to gauge whether Americans' tend to place the explanation for their success internally or externally.

A striking difference emerges between Americans and Western and Northern Europeans.

For instance 63 percent of Americans believe that hard work usually brings a better life compared to 37 percent of the French, 45 percent of the Dutch, and 46 percent of Norwegians. Only 14 percent of Americans primarily believe that success is more a matter of luck and connections, compared to a third of the French, Dutch, and Norwegians. Britons and Germans find themselves in between these groups and Americans.

For more than half a century, survey researchers have explored Americans' beliefs about the relationship between hard work, productivity, luck, inheritance, connections and wealth and success. Data from the General Social Survey demonstrate Americans' beliefs have changed little over time, and that they still believe hard work matters most.

A query of the Roper Center's collection of surveys bolsters the General Social Survey's results. Many differently worded surveys over the past half century, as shown in the timeline below, demonstrate that clear majorities still believe in the pillar of the American Dream: that hard work matters most.


CORRECTION: A previous version of this post included an ambiguous quotation from President Obama later explained by Obama spokeswoman Lis Smith. This quote has been removed to avoid further confusion.


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  1. “Obama’s “You Didn’t Build That” Speech Out of Sync With American Public Opinion”

    The leaders will need to make sure the public corrects its opinion.

    1. HAHA. exactly. How is Obama supposed to be a successful President if 63% of Americans are out of touch with HIM.

  2. I have a liberal friend who has this mindset, that the good things in her life have been due to luck even though she worked hard in school and has strong values. It makes me wonder….why would you even bother to work hard if you thought it made no effect on anything in your life? Do the liberals that work hard only pretend to believe their success is luck or are they insane?

    1. Inshallah. I learned about this attitude when i was deployed to Iraq. They believe everything is in God’s hands and will happen according to plan whether they make the effort or not. That’s why they don’t bother to aim when they shoot either. It’s indicative of people who don’t believe in free will or follow blind faith.

  3. Obama speech has altered my nerves.
    With nice words, he is launching a direct and striking attack on free enterprise, capitalism, private property and individual rights. Why isnt reason devoting its whole strenght to send him home? This is socialism, as clear as water.

    1. Yes, socialism if not down right communism.

  4. The hell I didn’t build that bridge!? My tax bracket clearly tells me I paid proportionately MORE for that bridge than the brackets below me. What an ass.

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  6. Not defending him, but he never said it was “luck”, just that success is not a purely individual matter.

    And, what does it matter what the public’s opinion is? Doesn’t make it factually correct; rather usually an argument for the contrary.

    I think this site should rename itself “Passions” or “Beliefs”. I see very little “Reason”ing here.

  7. Here’s some real REASON. The reason (ha) that citizens from the other countries are lower on the Hard Work phase is that the United States has a unique foundational principals, culture, mindset and infrastructure to reward those who work hard. Therefore, its citizens expect that working hard has a disproportionate effect on success. The other countries listed do not have that sort of foundation. So they see success as relatively more lucky than work.

    The sad thing is that Obama’s statement reveals his mindset and intention to move this country to be less rewarding of success, therefore reducing our chances to succeed overall. That’s the chilling point.

  8. It’s called being grateful for what you have received. This used to be considered an honorable quality — a virtue, even. I am not rich, nor famous, and I have never been accused of being a genius. I own my own house, owe no one even a nickel, and probably will not have to eat cat food in my retirement. I’ve worked hard to achieve all this. But I’m conscious of my luck and what has been given me. First, I had parents of above average intelligence, and they managed to pass on a lot of that to me. They were loving parents, which didn’t hurt, either. I had the luck to go to a good public high school and a good private college — to attend which, I got generous help from my father and a scholarship to boot. I work at a well paying job that wouldn’t exist if the government had not created the Arpanet and then refashioned it into what we now know as the Internet. If I had not worked hard, I’d be sleeping on a park bench instead of in a warm bed. But where would I be without the assistance I have just described? And I know worthy people who were far less lucky and who a undergoing trials and miseries that I have been spared. Your liberal friend is not insane — just aware.

    1. Thank you! I appreciate seeing I am not the only one who “gets it”!

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  10. This “you didn’t” nonsense is the latest in the rhetoric of the professional left. They want to share in the credit of the “makers” so they can take some of it and give it to the “takers.”

    1. They want to share in the credit of the “makers” so they can take some of it and give it to the “takers.”


  11. It is disingenuous to assert that President Obama said business people didn’t “do it on their own” without the context.

    President Obama was pointing out that we all use and rely upon other people’s investments. We really do all need each other.

    I would really love to meet the person who became a great business leader without family and friends encouraging, teachers teaching, schools, doctors, hospitals, roads, cars, telephones, internet, heating systems, roads, bridges, and without a roof over his/her head or food that he/she didn’t grow personally. And doing it on your own? What about your customers? Yeah, them. The people who bought your products or services. If you did it all on your own, you can’t claim them, either.

    Anyone care to show me that you were left, as a newborn, to make it on your own, and now you are a self-made business person?

    No? Absurd? Yeah it is absurd. That’s the point. You didn’t get there all on your own.

    We are all in this together, and the sooner we all start acting like it, the sooner America will recover.

    1. Your point that people interact with other people is beyond trivial. It still leaves the question of why one person who interacts with others becomes successful while another person who interacts with others doesn’t.

      Thanks for your contribution, but you couldn’t be more irrelevant.

  12. I find it interesting that the more socialist the country, the less people see hard work as driving success. Their perceptions are accurate…hard work doesn’t pay off under socialism.

    1. Is the Interstate Highway system socialism, for example? If you think so, should be replace it with a system of privately owned toll roads? And if we were to do that, should the management of the toll roads, on which the American people would depend for their prosperity, be left unregulated? Could the owners of toll roads be trusted not to exploit the public, as the railroad tycoons ruthlessly exploited farmers in the 19th century? Ever hear of a little old dogma called “original sin”? Whether you accept it as being of divine origin or not, can you disagree with Reinhold Niehbuhr’s belief that original sin is the only Christian dogma that is empirically verifiable?

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