No, Conservatives Aren't Taking 'You Didn't Build That' Out of Context

Posted: Jul 19, 2012 11:31 AM

The president's astonishing and revealing comments in Virginia last weekend have trickled up from the conservative blogosphere to center stage in the 2012 presidential campaign.  A reinvigorated Mitt Romney has seized on the remarks, parlaying the president's candid expression of his government-centric worldview into a focused and effective line of attack.  The Obama campaign, meanwhile, is mired in negative attacks and petty controversies.  The bottom hasn't fallen out of their polling yet, but things aren't looking robust either.  Desperate to beat back Romney's surge in confidence and clarity, the Left has taken to claiming that conservatives are taking Obama's words "out of context."  One of the Washington Post's in-house liberal bloggers, Greg Sargent, is one of many advancing that case.  But the Examiner's Phil Klein is having none of it, pointing out that the full context of Obama's comment actually reinforces the thesis over which Romney is battering Obama:

Obama’s defenders argue the “that” in “you didn’t build that” refers to “roads and bridges.” I’m not so sure we can make that assumption, given that “business” is the noun that directly precedes the pronoun “that.” But I don’t necessarily disagree with the general interpretation offered by liberals that Obama’s intention was to argue that government helps create the environment which allows people to build businesses. Even if we were to give Obama the benefit of the doubt in this paragraph, however, it doesn’t get him of the hook. The real damaging passage is the one that comes directly before the one cited above, in which Obama said:

 “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.

In this section, Obama isn’t arguing against Mitt Romney or the Republican Party. His argument is directed at business owners who attribute their success to their smarts and hard work. Business owners are clearly the “you” in this part of the speech, and Obama is scolding them, like a preacher, for taking too much credit for their accomplishments. Obama may not literally be claiming that government has built every business in the U.S. But he is clearly trying to urge people to allocate more credit to government and less to small business owners than they otherwise might. Aside from being unnecessarily insulting, his argument makes little sense. Everybody has access to roads and bridges, but not everybody builds successful businesses.

In his full, unabridged anti-business tirade, Obama essentially posits that no private or individual success is possible in America without the government's help.  As I argued on Megyn Kelly's Fox News program yesterday afternoon, this notion gets it exactly backwards:

Liberals gripe that Mitt Romney is ignoring Obama's broader point about infrastructure, teachers and firefighters (which I dealt with in the clip above).  The problem is, he's doing nothing of the sort.  In the impassioned stump speeches he's devoted to this issue, Romney has addressed Obama's straw men at length, acknowledging and defeating them.  Even if the Republican candidate were neglecting the "context" of the quote he's been reiterating on the campaign trail, Obama's primary message -- that individuals owe much of their success to the government -- was delivered four separate times during his original speech.  He openly scoffed at people who dare to think that their own achievements have been attained by dint of their God-given talents and the sweat of their brow.  The president and his supporters can't run away from that reality.  They'll try, though, because they recognize that even if they agree with Obama's hardcore collectivist ideology, most Americans will bristle at the president's insulting formulation.  That's why they'll draw false comparisons and stomp their feet about "context" and "lying," which is precious coming from the Four-Pinocchios-full-speed-ahead crowd.  In a protracted Twitter dispute over this issue last night, Sargent claimed that I was distorting Obama's words in order to "rescue Romney" from his "tax return mess."  My responses:

. Interesting that you think a discussion of worldviews & size/role of govt is a distraction from *Romney's taxes*

Shorter : Obama's revealing comment about a real issue (role of government) is a distraction from my preferred distraction!

The Romney campaign isn't backing off one inch.  They've released a new web ad starring a small business in New Hampshire whose owners are none too pleased with Obama's Statist denigration of their work:

I'll leave you with a few more facts on "fairness" and tax increases, which is the ultimate motivation behind Obama's rhetoric.  Once again, Phil Klein reports:

When all federal taxes are included, the top 1 percent paid 22.3 percent of taxes in 2009, compared to the bottom 20 percent, who paid only 0.3 percent of the taxes. That means that the proportion of taxes paid by the top 1 percent is 74 times the amount paid by bottom 20 percent...The top 20 percent, who earned 50.8 percent of income, paid 67.9 percent of taxes. In contrast, every other income group paid a lower share of taxes than they earned in income.

But you didn't build that.

UPDATE - James Taranto takes on the "out of context" myth on a grammatical level:

The [Obama "truth] Team then explains: "The President's full remarks show that the 'that' in 'you didn't build that' clearly refers to roads and bridges--public infrastructure we count on the government to build and maintain." That's bunk, and not only because "business" is more proximate to the pronoun "that" and therefore its more likely antecedent. The Truth Team's interpretation is ungrammatical. "Roads and bridges" is plural; "that" is singular. If the Team is right about Obama's meaning, he should have said, "You didn't build those." Barack Obama is supposed to be the World's Greatest Orator, the smartest man in the world. Yet his campaign asks us to believe he is not even competent to construct a sentence.