“You Didn’t Build That” Isn’t Going Away

It doesn’t matter what Obama meant. Here’s why.

Attendees at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.
Attendees at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.

Richard Kalvar/Magnum Photos for Slate.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage from the GOP convention.

The official theme of the GOP convention Wednesday night was “We Can Change That,” but that didn’t stop several of the speakers from revisiting Tuesday’s theme, the base-rallying battle cry: “We Built It.” The message: The righteous exploitation of President Obama’s “You Didn’t Build That” gaffe isn’t going away.

Ever since the president stood before a crowd of supporters in Roanoke, Va., on July 13 and, while explaining why the wealthy should pay more in taxes, uttered the infamous words “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen,” conservatives have hammered him for his disregard for small-business owners. And liberals have hammered back that Obama was taken out of context. To be fair, this is the full quote:

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.

Obama supporters can complain all they want. They can argue that when he said “that,” he was talking about the roads and bridges, not the business itself. It doesn’t matter. And it’s pointless to blame Mitt Romney or the RNC or anyone else for taking it out of context. Here’s why.

Many moons ago, I spent a couple of years in a fiction-writing program at a local university. I never finished the novel I aspired to write, but I did learn some valuable lessons. The most important: “It doesn’t matter what you meant. What matters is what you conveyed.” In the context of class, that meant when we were sharing our work and listening to feedback, we couldn’t butt in and say that we’d meant something else. We needed to take ourselves out of our own head and try to understand what our readers had heard.

In the case of Obama’s Roanoke speech, conservatives everywhere heard, ”You don’t get credit for your hard work.” I agree with the Washington Post for giving the Romney campaign  four Pinocchios for repeating the truncated quote ad nauseam. I wish Romney’s team would use the full version. Because even in its full glory, it would inspire largely the same reaction.  The sentiment resonates with small-business owners—and it’s small-business owners who have been most vocal in their response to Obama’s comments, from the co-owner of an Iowa deli who good-naturedly catered an Obama campaign stop in a T-shirt saying, “Government didn’t build my business” to the hardware store owner who was a bit less gracious

Conservatives suspect that President Obama sees government as the solution to everything. Only someone who thinks government is the answer would describe a stimulus program that cost at least $185,000 per job as successful. I can’t think of a starker difference between the liberal and conservative worldviews than the Life of Julia slide show.  Liberals look at that video and see a woman aided by a social safety net. Conservatives look at it and are creeped out by the fact that liberals think the very-capable-seeming Julia can’t do anything without government help.

That same sentiment comes through in the “You Didn’t Build That” speech. Obama’s words contain an undertone that business owners are selfish, that they are ungrateful toward those teachers who helped them along the way. And that is where Obama’s misunderstanding of small business, real or perceived, shines through.

Quite apart from whatever taxes they pay, small-business owners are part of the very fabric of their communities. Someone has to run the pharmacy. Someone has to run the gas stations. Local businesses don’t send their profits back to Bentonville, Ark.; Minneapolis, Minn.; or Cupertino, Calif., but rather put them back into the community. The restaurant owner gets his produce and meat from local stores, the mechanic hires a local painter to spruce up his shop. They are the ones who not only give money to the athletic booster club and the PTA, but show up to help out at fundraisers.  And if that teacher who helped them with their math homework stops by, the owner gives her a free oil change or an extra slice of pie for dessert. 

The president’s comment implies that business owners are ignorant of all the benefits they get from government. And it makes Obama’s supporters look unaware of all that government gets out of businesses and how political decisions affect entrepreneurs. Ask a business owner if they feel like they get more out of the government than they give. Sure, it helps that the city paves the road that was there for 20 years before they opened their business, and maybe they are grateful for that new traffic light. They understand that the local police protect their livelihoods. On the other hand, do politicians not appreciate that business owners match every dollar their employees contribute to Social Security and Medicare? Do politicians not understand when they are patting themselves on the back for raising minimum wage that somewhere, some shop owner is reaching for the ulcer medication while he weighs whether to raise prices, cut back employee hours, or rethink his hours of operation?

By Friday morning, crews will be tearing down the GOP convention stage and those crazy screens and banners that hung throughout the Tampa Bay Times Forum.  We’ll have forgotten “We Can Change That” and “We Believe in America.” But every day for the next two months, business owners will pull on T-shirts and hang signs on their stores that say “I Built This.” Go ahead, try telling them what their president “meant.”