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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Lazy Rhetoric

Republican presidential candidates Rick Perry and Mitt Romney both claim President Barack Obama said that “Americans are lazy.” He didn’t. To the contrary, Obama has consistently and repeatedly praised American workers as the “most productive in the world,” a bit of boosterism he has repeated dozens of times. His recent words — “we’ve been a little bit lazy, I think, over the last couple of decades” — actually referred to collective efforts to promote foreign investment in the U.S., and not to American workers or voters as individuals. Perry and Romney simply rip those words out of their context in order to mislead.

Perry used the president’s words to lead off his latest campaign ad, called “Lazy,” which began airing on national cable TV as well as broadcast and cable TV in Iowa on Nov. 16.

The 30-second ad begins with a video snippet of Obama saying, “We’ve been a little bit lazy I think over the last couple of decades.” It then cuts to Perry saying, “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.”

Perry first took issue with Obama’s words in his “Uproot and Overhaul Washington” speech in Iowa on Nov. 15:

Perry, Nov. 15: In recent weeks our president has taken to pointing the finger of blame instead of taking responsibility. He has called us soft and lazy, and he has said Americans lack ambition and imagination.

Mr. President, Americans aren’t soft or lazy, and Americans do not lack ambition or imagination, Washington has failed us.

Romney joined in the “Did you hear what he called you?” game in a stump speech in South Carolina the same day:

Romney, Nov. 15: 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.

Perry’s and Romney’s comments refer to three recent statements by Obama. We’ll start with the “lazy” comment, since it was featured in the ad and is the one most clearly distorted. It came during a CEO business summit Q & A hosted by APEC (Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation) in Hawaii on Nov. 12. Obama was asked about impediments to Chinese investments in the United States.

Obama, Nov. 12: Well, this is an issue, generally. I think it’s important to remember that the United States is still the largest recipient of foreign investment in the world. And there are a lot of things that make foreign investors see the U.S. as a great opportunity — our stability, our openness, our innovative free market culture.

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. And so one of the things that my administration has done is set up something called SelectUSA that organizes all the government agencies to work with state and local governments where they’re seeking assistance from us, to go out there and make it easier for foreign investors to build a plant in the United States and put outstanding U.S. workers back to work in the United States of America.

See that, Obama didn’t call you lazy. He said the U.S. has gotten lazy about promoting and attracting new business to America. In fact, he called you “outstanding U.S. workers.”

Onto Exhibit B. This one comes from remarks Obama made at a campaign event in San Francisco on Oct. 26. The context: Obama was making a pitch for further government investments in new roads, bridges, airports, wireless networks and other infrastructure.

Obama, Oct. 26: We used to have the best stuff. Anybody been to Beijing Airport lately? Or driven on high-speed rail in Asia or Europe? What’s changed? Well, we’ve lost our ambition, our imagination, and our willingness to do the things that built the Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam and unleashed all the potential in this country.

And now, Exhibit C, the “soft” comment. It comes via an interview Obama did with Orlando TV station WESH on Sept. 29. Obama said it was “challenging” for young people coming up in the wake of one of the worst financial crises and recessions in American history.

Obama, Sept. 29: But even before the financial crisis hit, one of the reasons that I ran for president was that wages, incomes had flat-lined at the same time that costs were going up. I think people felt that opportunities were becoming more constricted for the next generation.

And that’s why making sure that we’re revamping our education system, making sure we’ve got world class infrastructure, investing in basic science, research and technology, making sure that we are moving manufacturing back to the United States, and that we are being tough with our trading partners — making sure that they’re not taking advantage of us. There are a lot of things we can do.

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.

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.

So in this very speech, he calls Americans the “best workers in the world.”

In fact, we did a word search on “most productive workers” on the White House website and found Obama has used that phrase to describe American workers in 26 different speeches. In those speeches and others, he calls Americans “innovative,” “dynamic” and “hard-working.”

Here are a few examples:

  • “For all of the challenges we face, we continue to have the best universities, some of the most productive workers, the most innovative companies, the most adventurous entrepreneurs on Earth.”  – Aug. 8, 2011.
  • “We continue to have some of the best workers in the world, the most productive workers in the world. And we have the kind of dynamism and entrepreneurship in our economy that’s going to serve us well in the long term.” — Nov. 23, 2009.
  • “And we got the most productive workers on Earth. We’ve got the best workers right here in Elkhart — who are willing to put hard time and do whatever it takes to make sure a company succeeds.”  — Feb. 9, 2009, in Elkhart, Ind.
  • “For two years I traveled across this country. I met thousands of people — hard-working middle-class Americans who shared with me their hopes and their hardships. These are the men and the women who form the backbone of our economy. The most productive workers in the world. They do their jobs. They build the products and provide the services that drive America’s prosperity.”  — Jan. 30, 2009.
  • “We need to remind ourselves, we still have the most innovative economy in the world. We still have the most productive workers in the world.” — March 11, 2010.
  • “We have the most productive workers in the world, the greatest universities and capacity for innovation, an incredible amount of resilience, entrepreneurship, and flexibility, and the most diverse and creative population of any major economy.” — March 13, 2009.
  • “We still have, by far, the world’s largest and most vibrant economy. We have the most productive workers, the finest universities and the freest markets. The men and women in this room are living testimony that American industry is still the source of the most dynamic companies, and the most ingenious entrepreneurs.”  — Feb. 7, 2011.

We could go on, but we think you get the idea.

— Robert Farley