I was on a flight to Brazil as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney squared off in their first presidential debate in Denver last week, and so I missed the live airing of the event. But as soon as I arrived in Sao Jose dos Campos to meet with executives at Embraer (mostly to talk about the new Legacy 500 business jet before its first flight), the debate was the top topic on everybody’s mind.
The reaction by Ernie Edwards, president of Embraer Executive Jets, seemed to be a mix of frustration and mild bemusement. He was clearly upset by what the president had said, but not surprised. When I was able to watch the debate on YouTube later that day, I had a similar reaction. The frustrating part, for me, was that the president had avoided making any headline-grabbing observations about business aviation in quite a while, and now here he was choosing the first presidential debate to go back on the attack.
In a scathing open letter after the debate, NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen echoed the sentiments of the entire business aviation industry with this critique of Obama’s remarks: “Your comments seemed to illustrate a complete lack of understanding about the importance of business aviation in the U.S., and appear to be at odds with your stated interest in promoting job growth, stimulating exports, driving economic recovery and restoring America to its first-place position in manufacturing.”
It’s a great line, and I’m glad NBAA went on the record and said it. But I also know that Barack Obama certainly doesn’t suffer from “a complete lack of understanding” about the value of business aviation. He flies aboard Air Force One, the greatest business jet ever conceived. He has been an eager and active user of business aviation since before he started campaigning for the highest political office – and he will continue to be after he leaves the White House. To put it plainly, Barack Obama understands what an incredible tool a business jet can be.
Let’s look at what the president said during the debate: “Why wouldn’t we eliminate tax breaks for corporate jets? My attitude is if you got a corporate jet, you can probably afford to pay full freight, not get a special break for it.”
Ah, the pre-packaged, carefully crafted debate sound bite, two memorable lines delivered, in this case, in the president’s inimitably folksy way. (For the record, Romney was guilty of much the same thing in the debate as he deftly channled his inner Ronald Reagan and professed his love for Big Bird.) Obama’s criticism was a wholly populist message designed to score points with his base. For the president, corporate jets are probably the easiest target on the planet. Of course he’s going to go after them.
The bigger question is, does the president really believe his own message? Does he really think that by attacking business aviation, eliminating tax incentives and imposing user fees on corporate jet flights that he will be helping the country?
The answer is, yes he does. Whether you agree or not, it’s a cornerstone of his worldview – as candidate Barack Obama said himself four years ago, on Oct. 13, 2008, speaking to “Joe Sixpack” at an election rally: “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”
Since then, Obama’s message and ideas about the direction of the country haven’t changed one iota. There was nothing new in what the president said about corporate jets during last week’s debate – and so there’s really no reason for outrage. What we heard from the president’s podium in Denver was merely more of the same.