'You didn't build that': Obama's business quip is gift to Romney campaign

President Obama was speaking of public infrastructure when he talked about government’s role in business. But his clumsy phrasing opened the way for a conservative attack.

Don Petersen/AP
President Obama speaks during a campaign stop in downtown Roanoke, Va., last Friday.

“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

If you haven’t heard, President Obama gave Mitt Romney a great gift when he uttered those words in Roanoke, Va., last week. 

But you don’t have to wrench these words out of context to make a conservative attack on them, as Rep. Raul Labrador (R) of Idaho pointed out Thursday and as Mr. Romney has demonstrated on the stump.

  
 In fact, the most conservative attack on Mr. Obama’s clumsy phrasing leaves the words just as they are. 
  
 Here’s a fuller reading of Obama’s statement:

“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, 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."

As Representative Labrador pointed out on Thursday, taking the president at his word – that he meant not that government built American businesses but instead that government built and/or fostered the roads, Internet, and public safety necessary for business to flourish – is still ripe for conservative attack. 

“It’s not the government’s money!” Labrador said. “It was business people who gave the government money so we could have roads and buildings and infrastructure. That is what is fundamentally deficient in this administration.... He completely and fundamentally misunderstands what creates business, what creates a thriving economy.” 

Referring to his colleague, Rep. Jeff Duncan (R) of South Carolina, who noted on the House floor that he drove some 60,000 miles building his business, Labrador noted that Representative Duncan “was paying for the roads that he was driving.”

“I want to know what government entity created a business that paid for those roads,” he said. “Not a single one!" 

In other words, the money the government used to build the roads and develop the Internet came from somewhere. That somewhere was private enterprise – and some say that Obama’s inability to recognize that is his fatal flaw, economically speaking. 

Romney himself offered a similar critique this week. 

“The taxpayers pay for government. It’s not like government just provides those to all of us and we say, ‘Aw, thank you, government, for doing those things,’ ” he said in Irwin, Pa., on Wednesday. “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.”

But that’s not the critique most American people are seeing. 

The Romney campaign cut a slick commercial taking Obama to task over that statement, using a heavily modified version of the president’s words as an introduction before cutting to a powerful monologue from Jack Gilchrist of Gilchrist Metal Fabricating Company in Hudson, N.H. 

“My father’s hands didn’t build this company? My hands didn’t build this company? My son’s hands aren’t building this company? Did somebody else take out the loan on my father’s house to finance the equipment?” Mr. Gilchrist says. 

“With hard work and a little bit of luck, we built this business. Why are you demonizing us for it?” he adds, which could very well be Romney’s core message to voters over the past few days. 

(This requires Romney to engage in some old-fashioned political opportunism: He has to hack Obama’s actual statement to pieces, as Talking Points Memo demonstrates here.) 

But although “demonizing” is a lot splashier and evocative than simply not identifying the source of economic growth, a conservative reading of Obama’s full statement still generates a forceful critique.

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