“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.”
- “I like being able to fire people “
- “I’m not concerned about the very poor “
- “Corporations are people”
Since every one of these quotes were misrepresented by both pundits and Democrats, taken out of context and unfairly characterized, it’s hard to blame Republicans for jumping on President Obama’s provocative rhetoric, and using it for all it’s worth…which, I suspect, if you want to paint the President as a socialist who wants to punish success and give the fruits of risk-taking and hard work to the slack and unsuccessful, is a lot.
Here’s the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto:
“The president’s remark was a direct attack on the principle of individual responsibility, the foundation of American freedom. If “you didn’t build that,” then you have no moral claim to it, and those with political power are morally justified in taking it away and using it to buy more political power. “I think that when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody,” Obama said in another candid moment, in 2008.”
And here’s Mitt, making the most of it:
“The idea 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, you go on the list, that Joe and his colleagues didn’t build this enterprise, to say something like that is not just foolishness, it is insulting to every entrepreneur, every innovator in America, and it’s wrong.
“And by the way, the president’s logic doesn’t just extend to the entrepreneurs that start a barber shop or a taxi operation or an oil field service business like this and a gas service business like this, it also extends to everybody in America that wants to lift themself [sic] up a little further, that goes back to school to get a degree and see if they can get a little better job, to somebody who wants to get some new skills and get a little higher income, to somebody who have, may have dropped out that decides to get back in school and go for it. . . . The president would say, well you didn’t do that. You couldn’t have gotten to school without the roads that government built for you. You couldn’t have gone to school without teachers. So you didn’t, you are not responsible for that success. President Obama attacks success and therefore under President Obama we have less success and I will change that.”
I admit that when I first read Obama’s quote, it annoyed me greatly. Don’t tell my wife and me that we didn’t build our business. We went in debt to start it; we took out a second mortgage at an obscene rate; we wrecked our credit. We work seven days a week, and we haven’t had a family vacation in seven years.
Then I read the context of the statement, from a speech in Roanoke, Virginia:
“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.”
Obama is making the argument that individual achievement cannot be partitioned from community collaboration. No one truly goes it alone, no matter how significant their achievement or how unique their talents. Every successful individual and business indebted to the community, the nation and the American system. It’s not a remarkable concept, and shouldn’t be a controversial one. If it was articulately and unambiguously described, the only reasonable answer would be, “Well, of course.”
It wasn’t articulate, unfortunately. Obama often isn’t articulate when he gets off of a script,and then is victimized by his media- inflated reputation for being a verbal whiz and an intellectual giant. Taranto argues that we must presume that Obama means what he appears to say, since everyone insists that he’s brilliant. Well, brilliant people say dumb things on bad days, and brilliant or not, this is hardly the first time the President has chosen his words poorly.
It’s hard to blame Republicans and conservatives for treating Obama’s gaffe the dishonest way Democrats have used Romney’s words against him, but I’m equal to the task. I am sure that confirmation bias is working its dark magic in pundits like Taranto, who already believes that Obama is a wealth-redistributing crypto-socialist, and perhaps he is—but the Roanoke speech doesn’t prove it.
As usual, the spin-masters at the White House make me want to side with the critics. They argued that when the President said, “Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen,” he “clearly” intended “that” to refer to the roads and bridges. Here I side with Taranto: Obama can be rhetorically awkward, but not that awkward. “That” refers to “business.” Or does he mean to say that if you don’t have a business, you did build the roads and bridges? The problem with the speech is the verb “build,” and the absence of the necessary adverb “alone” or the phrase “without help.” But even while mangling the language, the President’s meaning is clear, and it’s not the kick in the teeth to business owners and innovators that Romney says it is.
The tough issue in all this, I think, is how much to temper ethics with reality. Is it fair to expect Mitt Romney to take a higher road in trying to defeat an incumbent President than the President and his supporters are willing to take themselves? They have battered Romney for months with “corporations are people,” for example—this is a favorite source of ignorant indignation from the Occupy Wall Street crowd—when his statement is true. Corporations are made up entirely of people, and are the mechanism through which people make a living, support their families, and provide good and services. His observation is as obvious as Obama’s point about how everyone’s success depends on the contributions of others. So no, it’s not fair to expect Romney to take a higher road than the President, and not to exploit his verbal missteps as vigorously as his own are exploited.
The ethical approach, however, would be to respond to the point the President was really making, and avoid the easy cheap shot. I know that would win at least one vote: mine.
Graphics: Didn’t Build That
Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at firstname.lastname@example.org.