President Obama’s belated defense of his infamous “you didn’t build that” comment has turned Clintonesque: it depends on what the meaning of the word “that” is. But it doesn’t, really. Regardless of whether Obama said that entrepreneurs didn’t build their own businesses, or whether he said they didn’t build the roads and bridges to which the president presumably thinks they owe their success, he has once again taken a revealing and gratuitous swipe at small business owners.
Speaking to supporters in Roanoke, Virginia on July 13, the president channeled Elizabeth Warren in a riff on how small business owners owe their success to others — primarily the government. “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help,” said the president. “There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
Republicans pounced on the last two sentences: “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” In other words: If you started a business, the credit belongs not to you but to the collective efforts of society that made it possible. That was certainly the most logical interpretation of the president’s remarks, and for over a week the Obama campaign appeared to acquiesce in that interpretation through its silence.
It appears to have finally dawned upon the president that his remarks were highly offensive to the millions of hard-working small business owners upon whom we depend to create jobs. His campaign has belatedly come out with an ad in which the president declares: “Those ads, taking my words about small business out of context, they’re flat out wrong.” Obama clearly expects the public to respect his expertise on the subject of taking words out of context: his own campaign has displayed its virtuosity by stringing together, in a single ad, 13 deceptively edited clips of Romney remarks that they have purposely taken out of context.
“Of course Americans build their own businesses,” Obama continues in his ad. “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.”
Fine. Those are apple pie sentiments. Anyone who cannot bring himself to utter such things should not be taken seriously as a candidate for president of the United States.
But were the president’s remarks in Roanoke really mischaracterized? Here are those remarks again, with the added context of the words that preceded them: “Look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hard-working people out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
It is irrelevant whether “you didn’t build that” refers to an entrepreneur’s business (which, again, is the most logical interpretation) or to the roads and bridges that were used by that business. The president’s remarks were clearly a contemptuous put-down of small business owners who, in the president’s view, want to take too much credit for their own success. He mocks small businessmen who have the gall to think they succeeded because they were “so smart” or “worked harder than everybody else.” The point of the president’s remarks was not to celebrate the courage, hard work and vision that it takes to make a business successful. Rather, the point was to admonish successful small business owners not to get too full of themselves, not to think that they’re so special. And along the way, he managed to denigrate the importance of intelligence and hard work.