Indeed, conservatives have jumped all over Obama's comments, claiming that those who want something for nothing are the truly selfish individuals. Conservatives are arguing that Obama's "spread the wealth" scheme is the truly selfish proposal. This is the exact opposite of the truth, and represents the widespread view of selfishness.
The common conception is that selfishness means screw your neighbor, every man for himself, and do whatever it takes to get ahead. This view implies that we should do unto others before they do unto us. It views life as a vicious battle between individuals to eat or be eaten. It is founded on the belief that individuals are thuggish brutes who will do anything and everything to attain their values. It is founded on the premise that one must sacrifice others to oneself, or sacrifice oneself to others.
This view of selfishness argues that all individuals are selfish and our natural inclinations must be controlled, or else civilization will collapse into anarchy. And that control is exercised through the same means ascribed to selfishness--brute force.
Our political culture is one of competing special interest groups, each seeking to eat others before they get eaten. Each seeks to do unto others before others can do unto them. Each seeks to do whatever it can to attain its values, and it seeks to use the power of government coercion to do so. Each seeks to sacrifice others before others can sacrifice them. In other words, those who hold this flawed view of selfishness act exactly as they define selfishness.
The proper definition of selfishness is "concern with one's self-interest". This definition is value neutral, it does not tell us if one's self-interest is proper, or what actions constitute one's self-interest. These are the issues that must be addressed by the science of ethics.
Man's basic and most fundamental value is his life. Without life, no other values are possible. Man's sustenance requires specific actions, and if an individual does not benefit from those actions his life will go out of existence. At the most basic level, an individual must obtain proper nutrition and protect his health. If he does not take these actions for himself, with his own self-interest in mind, his life will not continue. This fact does not change when one lives in a society, or the values sought are at a higher level.
Pursuing one's self-interest does not preclude one from cooperating with others. There are many benefits to living in society, both materially and spiritually. But those benefits must not be obtained through coercion and force. They must be obtained through trade, by offering value for value. As Ayn Rand wrote:
There is a fundamental moral difference between a man who sees his self-interest in production and a man who sees it in robbery. The evil of a robber does not lie in the fact that he pursues his own interests, but in what he regards as to his own interest; not in the fact that he pursues his values, but in what he chose to value; not in the fact that he wants to live, but in the fact that he wants to live on a subhuman level (see “The Objectivist Ethics”).
In the long-term the robber does not pursue his self-interest. He lives by force. He obtains his values by coercion. He sacrifices others to his desires. In doing so, he embraces the idea that life requires sacrifice, that life requires victims. He embraces the idea that might makes right, that if others have a bigger gun they may rightfully seize his property. And in the end, someone will.
Selfishness is not the pursuit of some momentary urge or whim. It requires a long-range perspective and the identification of which actions will help one attain one's values. It requires an intransigent devotion to reason in selecting one's values and validating the appropriateness of those values.
Life does not require sacrifice, whether of oneself to others or others to oneself. Human beings are not sacrificial animals.