Mitt Romney and an array of surrogates are mocking President Obama for remarks he made defending public investments in infrastructure, accusing him of arrogantly claiming credit for small businesses’ hard work and risk-taking. But it takes an Olympic-level gymnastic leap to make the attack work as advertised.
The Romney campaign is seizing on a specific line the president said at a campaign event in Virginia on Friday: “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Or, as a Romney press release blared: “OBAMA, TO BUSINESS OWNERS: ‘YOU DIDN’T BUILD THAT.’”
Sounds pretty bad — and it is, if you leave out the sentences directly before and after, which make it crystal clear Obama wasn’t talking about building businesses at all. The “that” in “you didn’t build that” referred to roads, bridges, infrastructure, education, emergency services and law and order — all services that protect and enable business owners along the way toward creating a successful operation.
Here’s the full passage:
“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 is referring specifically to government investments like the Internet, which enabled the rise of countless successful businesses even though the businesses themselves “didn’t build that” any more than UPS built the highways it uses to deliver its packages or Steve Jobs built the courts that protected his patents.
This isn’t a new argument. Not only has Obama himself used a version of it countless times in his stump speech, a similar speech by Elizabeth Warren, now running for Senate in Massachusetts, went viral in 2011. Considering Romney isn’t running on an extreme libertarian platform like Ron Paul’s that actually might call for abolishing some government institutions, it’s not entirely clear where he would disagree with the underlying argument that government should fund infrastructure projects that benefit citizens, other than how much funding such endeavors should receive.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the day of Obama’s campaign appearance in Virginia.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.