Within hours of President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” remark in July, Republicans sensed they had a campaign-defining moment, and the GOP moved quickly to ramp up the attacks that culminated in last week’s convention, when the theme of speaker after speaker was, “Yes I did build it. Without the government.”
The “we built it” pushback snowballed over the past two months, inspiring a new country tune, sparking impassioned online debates and fueling a variety anti-Obama T-shirts, television ads and campaign signs.
GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan and their political allies had a field day exploiting the remark, using the president’s own words as a call to arms and citing the comment as proof of Republicans’ long-held charge that, deep down, Mr. Obama has a disdain for business.
“What [President Obama] said was not a gaffe,” Mr. Romney said. “It was not a slip of the tongue. What he said was his philosophy. He said that if you have a business, you didn’t build it, someone else did that.”
So, what did Mr. Obama say exactly?
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help,” the Democrat told supporters at campaign stop in Roanoke, Va. “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.”
Republicans and Democrats have since engaged in a dogfight over what, exactly the president meant.
Kevin Madden, a senior Romney adviser, told The Washington Times that the moment “crystallized the arguments between the two candidates.” And, he said, the GOP’s use of the remark will be a focal part of the Romney campaign’s message right up through Election Day.
“It was the perfect summary of [Mr. Obama’s] world view when it comes to government’s role and how you bring back the economy,” Mr. Madden said. “Obama is saying that the best way to do that is that government is the engine for economic growth, that more money given to the government can then be spent to help grow the economy. And we are saying ‘no,’ that the private sector and faith being put in the American individual and entrepreneurs that are going to be able to grow the economy and create more jobs— that that is a better approach. And what we ought to be doing is helping small business and helping entrepreneurs.”
David Plouffe, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign, defended the president over the weekend, saying in an interview on “This Week with George Stephanopolous” that the Romney campaign is “built on a foundation of absolute lies” and described “this whole we-can’t-build-it” attack as “nonsense.”
“You know, the president, as I think everybody in America does, believes that small businesses are built through the drive and innovation and hard work. The point he was trying to make is things like education, roads, our infrastructure is something we all do together,” Mr. Plouffe said.
Independent fact checkers also have challenged the Republican use of the remark, saying that the Romney campaign has “seriously distorted” Mr. Obama’s quote.
“By plucking two sentences out of context, Romney twists the president’s remarks and ignores their real meaning. The preceding sentences make clear that Obama was talking about the importance of government-provided infrastructure and education to the success of private businesses,” said Politifact, a project of the Tampa Bay Times, which the Romney camp also cited in the primary to debunk their rivals’ attacks.
Still, it was clear in Tampa, Fla., and on the campaign trail since, that the president’s remarks struck a raw nerve with some voters. And the Republican pushback is resonating with business owners and injecting new energy into the Romney candidacy.
“I don’t believe the president’s comments were taken out of context. I believe that Obama is against the small business,” said Rob Trace, 54, owner of a construction company who attended a recent Romney rally in a bedroom community outside of Columbus, Ohio. “I believe that I did build my business— and, in fact, the government had nothing to do with it. They put so much restrictions on business right now, and it is really hard for the small-businessman. I believe that Mitt Romney is going to change that.”