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.
The president has consistently displayed a scornful attitude toward businesses, including during his much-hyped jobs speech last year before a joint session of Congress: “[F]or everyone who speaks so passionately about making life easier for ‘job creators,’ this plan is for you,” said the president, unable to hide his disdain for Republican concerns even while purporting to be solicitous of them. “Job creators” was actually placed within dismissive quotation marks in the prepared text. He might as well have sneeringly referred to entrepreneurs as “so-called job creators.”
Obama’s antipathy toward business is deep-seated. Before finding his true calling as a community organizer, Obama spent a very brief amount of time in the private sector. He took an entry-level job out of college where he wrote reports on economic conditions in foreign countries. According to David Maraniss’s biography entitled Barack Obama: The Story, Obama told his mother that the job was like “working for the enemy.” In his own book, Dreams from My Father, Obama described himself as being “[l]ike a spy behind enemy lines” during his brief tenure in Corporate America. As a former liberal, I recognize these sentiments; they have long been fashionable in the circles I used to run in.
Obama is now a successful politician, and hence knows enough to pay lip service to the virtues of the entrepreneurial spirit. During his remarks in Roanoke, he went on to say the following: “The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.” This is fairly typical of Obama. When he extols the virtues of something like “individual initiative,” it is invariably followed by a “but,” which is in turn followed by his real point. In this case, his real point is that the successful owe their success to the government.
As usual, the president is engaged in a passionate argument with a straw man. Who is against using public funds (which are raised disproportionally from successful individuals and businesses, by the way) for public infrastructure? The president is running against the Republicans, but he seems to think that he’s running against the anarchists. And does the president really think that “this unbelievable American system” is based upon the fact that we use public funds to build roads and bridges? If I may respond to the president by paraphrasing his own words: “Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of countries out there that use public funds to build roads and bridges. All of them do, actually. But none of those other countries has been as successful as the United States of America, so it must be something else that accounts for this unbelievable American system.”
Imagine if a presidential candidate were to say the following about, say, war heroes: “I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so brave. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of brave people out there.”
If someone felt the need to put war heroes in their place by making such a statement, what would it suggest about that person’s respect for war heroes? The same thing that President Obama’s remarks in Roanoke suggest about his respect for small business owners.
David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He is the author of Left-Hearted, Right-Minded: Why Conservative Policies Are The Best Way To Achieve Liberal Ideals.