Why Obama's 'you didn't build that' line may bite back

The line may have been taken out of context. But it plays into the Romney campaign's main point of attack against the president: that he puts more faith in government than in private enterprise.

Don Petersen/AP
President Obama speaks on how to grow the economy, create jobs, and pay down the debt during a campaign stop in Roanoke, Va., on July 13.

It’s not quite up there with “the private sector is doing fine.” Nevertheless, it will almost certainly be coming soon to an attack ad near you.

President Obama’s statement, made at a campaign rally in Virginia last weekend, that “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen” provided an opening for the Romney campaign to hit the president at what they are presenting as his weakest spot – his failure to understand business and the economy.

Mitt Romney ridiculed the line on the campaign trail Tuesday:

“To say that Steve Jobs didn’t build Apple, that Henry Ford didn’t build Ford Motor, that Papa John didn’t build Papa John Pizza, that Ray Kroc didn’t build McDonald’s, that Bill Gates didn’t build Microsoft is not just foolishness, it is insulting to every entrepreneur,” Mr. Romney said.

Examined in context, it’s pretty clear what the president was trying to say. As numerous media outlets have noted, it’s really a flubbed version of the famous Elizabeth Warren “there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own” speech that went viral last fall. Like Ms. Warren, Obama was making the argument that “wealthy, successful Americans” should pay a higher tax rate because they didn’t get to where they are without a lot of help from society. The line right before “you didn’t build that” was about roads and bridges – making it pretty clear that it was infrastructure the president was referring to, not businesses.

But the way it came out, it played right into the Romney campaign’s overall narrative about the president’s failure to understand how business and private enterprise work. .

And of course, that’s really what makes a gaffe a gaffe. If Romney’s primary point of attack against the president were something different – say, on cultural issues or foreign affairs – then the line may well have passed by unnoticed.

But when a candidate says something that seems to amplify the main argument against them, then it’s gold for the opposition.

Consider the Romney gaffes that have so far been immortalized in the campaign: “Corporations are people,” “I like being able to fire people,” or “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” All those remarks had a different – and more sympathetic – meaning in context, too. But in isolation, they played right into the Democrats' portrayal of Romney as being a heartless, out-of-touch capitalist who’s on the side of the rich, not average Americans.

Most of the time, Obama carefully balances his arguments about tax fairness and the role of government with other references to the importance of individualism. His stump speeches are typically peppered with lines like “we’re not a country that believes in handouts, we believe in working for what we get,” and “we believe in individual initiative and self-reliance.” Last week, in Iowa, he said: “We love folks getting rich. I hope Malia and Sasha go out there and if that’s what they want to do, that’s great."

But with the “you didn’t build that” line, Obama inadvertently helped feed his opponent's narrative that his real faith lies in the power of government, not private enterprise. And it gave Romney a chance to get back on offense.

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