By MARSHA MERCER
President Barack Obama’s pet peeve: “People who have been successful and don’t realize they’ve been lucky. That God may have blessed them. It wasn’t nothing you did, so don’t have an attitude.”
When he urged Howard University graduates last month to be grateful, Obama reopened an old argument. Four years ago, he ran into a buzz saw of criticism when he strongly suggested that successful people don’t get ahead by hard work alone.
“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen,” the president said in a campaign speech in Roanoke, Va., in July 2012.
Republican rival Mitt Romney jumped on the two sentences, using the scathing sound bite in ads against Obama, who claimed his words were taken out of context. They were. Obama was trying to make a point about community, government and even luck playing roles in an individual’s success, but he phrased it horribly.
Eleven days later, Obama spoke directly to voters in his own TV ad: “Of course Americans build their own businesses. Every day hard-working people sacrifice to meet a payroll, create jobs and make our economy run. And what I said was that we need to stand behind them, as America always has, by investing in education and training, roads and bridges, research and technology.”
How people see luck is a dividing line between conservatives and liberals, Robert H. Frank writes in his new book, “Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy.”
Surveys show wealthier people overwhelmingly think their success is a result of their own hard work rather than other factors, such as luck or being in the right place at the right time, says Frank, a professor of management and economics at Cornell University.
People who believe luck plays a role in their success are more empathetic toward the less fortunate and that has tax and social policy implications, studies show.
When successful people believe there are others who also are smart and work hard but don’t strike it rich, they’re more generous and public-minded and inclined to approve of more spending on things like education and infrastructure, polls show.
Americans have always had a rocky relationship with luck. In the second half of the 19th century, Horatio Alger Jr. built his writing career with a series of novels about poor but plucky young fellows who were honest, worked hard -- and got rich through strokes of luck.
But in the 1940s, E.B. White observed, “Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men.”
Donald J. Trump, who got his start in business with a million-dollar loan from his father, concedes a little of his success to luck.
“There’s a certain amount of luck,” Trump told students in Wisconsin earlier this year. “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”
That’s a paraphrase of the line golfer Gary Player made famous: “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.”
In his campaign book, “Crippled America,” published last year, Trump writes: “I know how lucky I am. The day I was born I had already won the greatest lottery on Earth. I was born in the United States of America.”
Trump, though, may be more optimistic than most. Less than half of Americans agree that “anyone who works hard still has a fair chance to succeed and live a comfortable life in today’s America,” according to the latest Allstate-National Journal Heartland Monitor poll, released in January.
It’s odd that Obama’s talk about luck angers people when his overall message is uplifting. He told the Howard graduates:
“We must expand our moral imaginations to understand and empathize with all people who are struggling, not just black folks who are struggling – the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender person, and, yes, the middle-aged white guy who you may think has all the advantages, but over the last several decades has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change, and feels powerless to stop it.
“You got to get in his head too,” he said. And that could bring us all better luck.
©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.