Mitt Romney and his allies have attacked President Barack Obama — often out of context — for saying, “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
- American Crossroads posted a 60-second Web video called “Build” that shows small-business owners reacting to Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comment.
- The Romney campaign replays Obama saying “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that” five times in a 15-second video as part of a “petition” drive. It also uses the quote in an email fundraising appeal.
- Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts posted a two-and-a-half-minute Web video that juxtaposes the president’s remarks against statements made by other presidents on the importance of free enterprise.
There’s no question Obama inartfully phrased those two sentences, but it’s clear from the context what the president was talking about. He spoke of government — including government-funded education, infrastructure and research — assisting businesses to make what he called “this unbelievable American system that we have.”
In summary, he said: “The point is … that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”
Obama made his remarks at a July 13 campaign appearance in Virginia. The president was speaking against Romney’s proposal to retain the Bush-era tax cuts and cut federal tax rates an additional 20 percent across the board for all taxpayers.
Here’s what he said:
Obama, July 13: There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t — 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 hardworking people out there. (Applause.)
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. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.
So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for President — because I still believe in that idea. You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.
Obama’s comments were not entirely new. The president frequently speaks about the role of government in a free-market society, as he did in his 2011 State of the Union address:
Obama, Jan. 25, 2011: Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation. But because it’s not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout our history, our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need. That’s what planted the seeds for the Internet. That’s what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS. Just think of all the good jobs — from manufacturing to retail — that have come from these breakthroughs.
Certainly, Obama’s latest comments invite a debate not only over the role of government, but how much responsibility the private sector has to help fund it. That debate, however, can occur only when the president’s remarks are viewed in context.
Out of Context
American Crossroads, the conservative group founded with the help of Karl Rove, posted a Web video July 20 that features the president’s comments. Twice, Obama is shown saying: “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
Small-business owners responded to the president’s remarks with outrage. “What an insult,” says one.
The video does not include any other remarks from the president’s speech, including the five sentences preceding his remarks when he says: “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.”
Three days earlier, the Romney campaign posted a 15-second video that shows the president saying over and over, “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.” Five times, in all.
On the website — and in a follow-up fundraising appeal — the Romney campaign says the president’s words are “a slap in the face to the American Dream.” Neither the video nor the fundraising email provided anything more than that single sentence from the president’s speech.
In the latest and most expansive use of the president’s words, the campaign of Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts posted a video July 23 that shows past presidents — including John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan — speaking about the power of free enterprise. It then shows selectively edited clips of Obama.
In the two-and-a-half-minute video, Obama is shown saying: “[I]f 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.” And, then, he says: “If you got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Everything the president said in between those two quotes — and before and after them — was left out.
This is not to say that Republicans are always distorting the president’s words. In fact, Romney himself during a July 17 speech in Pennsylvania provided a more complete account of what the president actually said.
Romney acknowledged “you really couldn’t have a business if you didn’t have those things” as described by Obama, including teachers and firefighters.
Romney, July 17: He said this, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” That somebody else is government, in his view. He goes on to describe the people who deserve the credit for building this business. And, of course, he describes people who we care very deeply about, who make a difference in our lives: our school teachers, firefighters, people who build roads. We need those things. We value school teachers, firefighters, people who build roads. You really couldn’t have a business if you didn’t have those things. But, you know, we pay for those things. Alright? The taxpayers pay for government. It’s not like government just provides those to all of us and we say, “Oh, thank you government for doing those things.” No, in fact, we pay for them and we benefit from them and we appreciate the work that they do and the sacrifices that are done by people who work in government. But they did not build this business.
Update, July 24: After we posted this item, the Obama campaign said the president was referring to the construction of roads and bridges when he said “you didn’t build that.” (Again, the president said: “Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.”) The campaign also posted a new Web video in which the narrator says, “Actually, he was talking about building ‘infrastructure and education’ … ‘not that individuals don’t build their businesses.’ ” We don’t know what the president had in mind when he uttered those words, and his intent is not clear. Regardless, our conclusion is the same: Taking snippets of his speech ignores the larger context of the president’s meaning that a business owner does not become successful “on your own.”
— Eugene Kiely