Romney, Obama Butt Heads On Role Of Government

This week Republican challenger Mitt Romney accused President Obama of crediting government for small business success. That distorts what Mister Obama actually said, but behind the brickbats is a real and important debate over the role of government.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. President Obama and Mitt Romney have been sparring over who gets credit for economic success in America. Romney has been criticizing a remark the president made last Friday.

MITT ROMNEY: He said this: If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen.

SIEGEL: As we'll hear in a moment, that's only part of what the president said during an appearance in Virginia. But in trying to score political points, the two men have stumbled into a genuine debate about our obligations to one another, and the role of government in society. Here's more from NPR's Scott Horsley.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama's comment came as he stood outside a picturesque firehouse in Roanoke. He said Americans have historically cooperated to fight fires, educate children, and do other things they can't do on their own. He argues successful people have an obligation to give back, in return for the help they've received along the way.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have, that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business, that - you didn't build that.

UNIDENTIFIED SUPPORTERS: That's right.

OBAMA: Somebody else made that happen.

UNIDENTIFIED SUPPORTERS: Yeah!

HORSLEY: It's an idea the president has expressed before. As a scholarship kid who rose to the White House, he's vividly aware of the role that a helping hand, or just plain luck, can play in a person's success.

OBAMA: 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.

UNIDENTIFIED SUPPORTERS: Yeah!

OBAMA: 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.

(APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: Romney, on the other hand, characterizes his success as self-made - independent of his father, a wealthy auto executive-turned Michigan governor.

ROMNEY: I could have stayed in Detroit, like him, and gotten pulled up in the car company. I went off on my own.

HORSLEY: Romney acknowledges there's a limited role for government, and Mr. Obama doesn't dismiss individual initiative. But the two have very different attitudes about everything from tax policy to government stimulus. Romney says the president's argument that businesses aren't created in a vacuum, is insulting to entrepreneurs.

ROMNEY: To say what he said, is to say that Steve Jobs didn't build Apple Computer.

HORSLEY: Steve Jobs' biography notes that the first computer he ever saw was at a NASA research center, when military investment was just beginning to transform fruit orchards into Silicon Valley.

MICHAEL LIND: Steve Jobs did create Apple, and it's essential to have brilliant entrepreneurs.

HORSLEY: This is Michael Lind of the New America Foundation.

LIND: He did not create the information technology industry. That was largely created by scientists and engineers; subsidized directly or indirectly by the government, particularly by the Pentagon.

HORSLEY: In his economic history of America, "Land of Promise," Lind writes that despite our sentimental attachment to Jeffersonian individualism, Americans have profited from government investment in the economy since the days of Washington and Hamilton.

LIND: Industrial policy, in the sense of a strong federal role, that goes all the way back to the founding of the country.

HORSLEY: But not without debate. In Abraham Lincoln's day, it was the Republican Party that championed government investment, while Southern Democrats opposed it. Today, those positions are largely reversed, with Romney pushing to scale back government spending and regulation.

Yaron Brook heads the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights. He wants a largely hands-off government, and says the only obligation he feels is to leave other Americans alone.

YARON BROOK: There are two visions here for America, which I think are really at the heart of the cultural, philosophical conflict of our time. And that is a collectivist vision - you know, you have to give back to society; society gave you stuff - versus a vision of individualism.

HORSLEY: Brook rejects Mr. Obama's central theme that Americans are all in this together. But he credits the president for focusing an important political debate.

BROOK: You know, this is the core argument. This is what it's about. What kind of government, what kind of society do we want to live in?

HORSLEY: Brook says he hopes the candidates will keep up this argument through November.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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