“Can you believe that? That’s what our president thinks is wrong with America? That Americans are lazy? That’s pathetic. It’s time to clean house in Washington.”

— Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in a new television ad attacking President Obama

“Sometimes, I just don’t think that President Obama understands America. I say that because this week — or was it last week? — he said that Americans are lazy. I don’t think that describes America. Before that, I think it was in October, he was saying we have lost our inventiveness, and our ambition. Before that he was saying other disparaging things about Americans. I just don’t think he understands — he was saying we just weren’t working hard enough. I don’t think he gets what’s happening in this country.”

— Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Nov. 15, 2011

Republican president candidates have begun attacking President Obama for supposedly insulting Americans by calling them “lazy.” Perry has even framed a new television ad around the idea.

Since we once gave a Pinocchio to Obama for what we called unsubstantiated boosterism — “We have the most productive workers, the finest universities and the freest markets” — we were a little surprised to learn that he had suddenly turned so anti-American.

What’s going on here?

The Facts

When a president makes a similar offhand comment at least two times, our experience tells us that something is on his mind. Maybe he read a book, perhaps there was a briefing, perhaps he even saw a television documentary. A clear sign that this notion has begun to sink in is that he begins to muse about it in public.

Consider these two comments by Obama, made some weeks apart:

“The way I think about it is, this is a great, great country that had gotten a little soft and we didn’t have that same competitive edge that we needed over the last couple of decades. We need to get back on track.”

(Sept. 29)


“But we’ve been a little bit lazy, I think, over the last couple of decades. We’ve kind of taken for granted — well, people will want to come here and we aren’t out there hungry, selling America and trying to attract new business into America.”

(Nov. 12)

Notice that, even though the subject matter is slightly different, in both cases Obama is talking about a two-decade trend. This takes you through Democratic (Bill Clinton) and Republican (both George Bushes) presidents. In essence, it’s the period after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, when the United States became the world’s sole superpower, largely unchallenged as a military and economic force.

We asked White House officials if the president was referring to a particular document or study he had read, and didn’t really get an answer. But certainly there are trend lines, such as the rise of China as an economic power, that back up the president’s concern that the United States now must work harder for business in a much more competitive environment.

In a specific example of the issue cited in the “lazy” comment, numerous studies indicate that foreign direct investment (FDI) in the United States has dropped, especially in the last 10 years. In a report last month, Dartmouth College Associate Dean Matthew J. Slaughter reported that the trend is especially worrisome:

“The U.S. share of the world’s stock of FDI rose from 25.9% in 1990 to 41.4% in 1999, but it then fell sharply to just 17.6% in 2009. Much of this fall reflects the surge of China, India, and other developing countries as attractive locations for multinational companies to expand. Regardless, the U.S. share of global FDI has fallen — and has fallen at a much faster rate than has either the FDI share of other advanced countries or the U.S. share of other global economic activities such as global gross domestic product. And in the first six months of 2011, FDI inflows into the United States fell by 11.7% compared to the first half of 2010.”

In other words, Obama is highlighting a serious problem. Perhaps the phrase “lazy” is a bit overheated, but it clear from the context of Obama’s remarks that he is not saying Americans are lazy. He’s talking about a trend over a two-decade period that indicates a certain complacency in trying to win business and investment.

Indeed, what did Obama say right after he suggested Americans had gotten “soft” over the past two decades?

“But I still wouldn’t trade our position with any country’s on earth. We still have the best universities, the best scientists, and best workers in the world; we still have the most dynamic economic system in the world. So we just need to bring all those things together.”

Oh. That same old unsubstantiated boosterism.

The Pinocchio Test

Perry and Romney have ripped Obama’s remarks completely out of context, similar to Romney’s ridiculous Four-Pinocchio claim that Obama “apologized” for America overseas. In both cases, the candidates are trying to feed into a subterranean narrative that Obama is not quite American, or certainly not proud to be an American. But, frankly, it’s just lazy politicking on their part.

Four Pinocchios

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