Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

“You Didn’t Build That”

“You Didn’t Build That”

Photograph via the AP

There’s a sad irony behind the controversy over President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” remark. During the 2008 Democratic Primary, there was a mini-scandal when the Clinton campaign accused then-Senator Obama of plagiarizing speeches from Massachusetts’ democratic governor, Deval Patrick. Senator Obama fought back against Senator Clinton’s charge that his campaign offered nothing but rhetoric by using language remarkably similar to Patrick’s. The story quickly fizzled, in part because Patrick was a strong supporter of Obama’s, and Obama, of course, went on to win the nomination.

The President should have stuck with plagiarism. Last summer, another Massachusetts Democrat—Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren—gave about as succinct and eloquent an explanation of the progressive view of the relationship between business and government as you’re ever going to hear. While President Obama didn’t reference Warren in his remarks, he was clearly trying to express the same sentiment. In hindsight, he would have been much better off stealing Warren’s words verbatim and fighting off the plagiarism charge. Instead, by stumbling over his words, President Obama gave Republicans a sound bite tailor-made to being ripped from its context and used to feed the image of the president as a paternalist/socialist.

And so, now we’re in the midst of a raging national debate over the meaning of the word “that.” It seems to me that the Romney campaign may have overplayed its hand on this. While it has fired up the Republican base and put the Obama campaign on the defensive for a week, by focusing on the most extreme interpretation of the President’s remark—that government rather than private citizens is responsible for creating all private enterprise—Romney left an opening for the President to explain his true meaning—that of course he values the contribution that entrepreneurs make to society, but that no one is truly on their own and that there are certain things that we have to rely on one another for.

The latter version is much more difficult for the Romney campaign to attack. While some conservatives argue that the full context of the President’s remarks makes them even worse, anyone who takes such a strongly ideological view of the role of government isn’t voting for the President anyway. The Ayn Randian “noble capitalists would be our salvation if the rest of us would just submit to their will” view is as much a minority position as true socialism: most Americans take a much more pragmatic view of what the role of government should be. Even the man chosen by the Romney campaign as the spokesman for self-made small businessmen admits to relying on government assistance when it’s available.

This whole back and forth has been a depressing display of American campaigning. Liberals are right to blast Romney for the dishonesty of how his campaign is using the President’s words. But it’s also hard to shake the belief that Democrats would take similar advantage of a similar line from Romney. There’s a good deal of similarity between Obama’s “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that,” and Romney’s “I’m not concerned about the very poor” line. Both quotes A) sound broadly objectionable out of context, but B) in context are objectionable mostly to partisans on the other side. Further, in both cases, the speaker’s opponents feel justified in taking the quote out of context because of the belief that these quotes show what Romney and President Obama really believe, even if they’re usually more careful about choosing their words.

Another depressing aspect of our politics revealed by the “you didn’t build that” controversy is the rush to claiming the mantle of victimhood. In Romney’s “These Hands” ad, the featured business owner asks the President, “Why are you demonizing [small business owners] for [their hard work]?” Even assuming the least favorable interpretation of President Obama’s quote, is anybody being “demonized”? Minimized, perhaps marginalized. Who would have thought the courageous, self-reliant engines of America would be so damn sensitive?

President Obama chose his words poorly, there’s no denying that. The resulting fallout has demonstrated the worst of American politics, as everyone tries to score the easiest points they can. It’s particularly disheartening since underlying the point President Obama was trying to make is the fundamental disagreement between the candidates about the function of government, a debate now lost among the charges and countercharges of dishonesty and hypocrisy.