By JONATHAN GURWITZ
New York Times News Service
Republicans are having a field day with President Barack Obama’s insult of American entrepreneurship: “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.”
The Republican National Committee and other groups have put out a series of ads featuring great American inventors — Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs — tagged with, “You didn’t build that.”
Some enterprising folks put www.didntbuildthat.com on the Internet — which, the president helpfully reminded the public, was created by the government — to catalog different versions of the meme.
There’s only one problem with all the “You didn’t build that” attacks: President Obama clearly didn’t mean what they say.
The “that” in “you didn’t build that” doesn’t refer to a business. It refers to the words immediately preceding this text. While the quote from the president’s stump speech in Roanoke, Va., is literally accurate — mostly — this is an instance where context both helps and hurts the president’s case.
In the moments immediately preceding the fateful remark, President Obama talked about success in America being the result of communitarian rather than individual efforts: “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody invested in roads and bridges.”
Then came, “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.” It’s evident, in context, that “that” refers at the very least to the investment in roads and bridges. It’s even more evident when you see video of the speech, which shows an extraneous “that” pointing back to roads and bridges edited out of the transcript by the news services and even the White House.
There are two delicious bits of irony associated with Build-That-Gate. The first is that President Obama is supposed to be an incomparable speaker. His meteoric rise from the Illinois state Senate to the Oval Office is due in large part to a single speech he gave at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. How could he deliver a line that, even taken out of context, could be used so effectively against him?
In fact, far from being the world’s greatest orator, President Obama has demonstrated himself to be profoundly gaffe-prone when he is separated from a TelePrompTer, as he was in Virginia. “When you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.” Or his remark about bitter small-town residents who “cling to guns or religion.” Or his recent claim that “the private sector is doing fine.”
The second irony is that the president is getting whacked with a weapon he wielded to great effect in 2008 and is still using today. Funny how context doesn’t matter when the words are “corporations are people” or “our productivity equals our income” and they happen to have been spoken by Mitt Romney.
Even without “You didn’t build that,” the Roanoke speech gave Romney and the Republicans plenty of collectivist material to argue that Obama is out of touch with the individual spirit and initiative that have made the United States great — the spirit and initiative that create the jobs that pay the taxes that fund the schools and build the infrastructure that the president suggests are merely the gifts of a beneficent government.
“I believe in an America where the free enterprise system flourishes for all other systems to see and admire,” one GOP commercial quotes a candidate on the campaign trail, “where no businessman lacks either competition or credit, and where no monopoly, no racketeer, no government bureaucracy can put him out of business that he built up with his own initiative.”
The quote is from 1960. The candidate was John F. Kennedy.