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Putting ‘Context’ In Context: Obama’s ‘You Didn’t Build That’ Speech

The speech President Obama gave at a campaign stop in Roanoke, Va. on July 13 has become known as the "you didn't build that" speech. (AP)

The speech President Obama gave at a campaign stop in Roanoke, Va. on July 13 has become known as the “you didn’t build that” speech. (AP)

In a new campaign spot, President Obama says to the camera, “Those ads taking my words about small business out of context — they’re flat-out wrong.”

Was his remark, “you didn’t build that; somebody else made that happen,” taken out of context? Here is what he said:

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. 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.

It’s true that some Romneyites would stoop to taking words out of context. They did that in their first ad attacking Obama, when they edited a sound-bite of Obama quoting John McCain to make it sound like it was Obama expressing his own view. I criticized that at the time, feeling that it was ominous for the 2012 race. And indeed, the presidential contest has remained at that level. Both sides rely on attack ads, rather than giving voters specific solutions and genuine hope.

Nonetheless, let’s consider the question of whether Obama’s “you didn’t build that” remarks were taken out of context. This issue might be significant because it could affect the outcome. Most conservatives think it reveals that the president is hostile to, or dangerously ignorant of, entrepreneurship – and they are motivated to work even harder to defeat him. Most liberals seem to think he was correct in what he said or is the victim of distortion by Republicans.

How do we judge what was said to decide whether it’s revealing or irrelevant? Well, if we were evaluating a provocative comment by a job applicant, we’d put that remark in context. Was it ironic because he smiled while saying it? Was it heartfelt because he raised his voice? Was it worrisome because it reinforced a weakness that he claimed he had overcome?

If you watch video of the Obama speech, you’ll see that he was clearly using resentment of successful entrepreneurs to rouse the audience. If it was not demagoguery, it was a great imitation.

And if you want to give him the benefit of the doubt and imagine that he made these comments off the cuff, you’d have to ignore the fact that the offensive part seemed to be plagiarizing what senate candidate Elizabeth Warren said in a much publicized talk. You can see the similarity in a new web video from Scott Brown’s campaign.

Notice the passionate delivery by Obama and Warren. Have you ever seen them more animated? No, they seem sincerely resentful of people who have succeeded in creating their own business. Does this indicate that the two liberal law professors believe that government knows best, and it’s important to denigrate those who would dare think they achieved something independently? You can draw your own conclusion by considering other kinds of context.

For example, there’s the context of history. In the Brown video, it begins with pro-business quotes from past Democratic presidents, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton. It reminds us that Democratic leaders once understood the wisdom of what the late senator Paul Tsongas famously said at the 1992 Democratic National Convention: “You cannot be pro-jobs and anti-business at the same time. You cannot love employment and hate employers.”

Now, to consider in context whether Obama meant to denigrate those who sacrifice to start and operate small businesses, ask yourself: During this recession has Obama been passionate and determined in encouraging small businesses to expand and create new jobs? Or did he put his faith in government stimulus, deficit-spending, regulations and the federal bureaucracy?

Obama has never started a business or managed one. Perhaps the closest he came was his decision to back Solyndra with half a billion in federal funds, which went bankrupt. With that lack of experience is it fair to say that he should have known better than to mock entrepreneurs?

Another way to give his remarks context is to consider this question: If Obama’s remarks were truthful and fair — that people shouldn’t think they are smarter or harder working because all individual success is really due to others — what would you have thought if Romney used the same logic in talking about, say, teachers? Imagine the outcry if Romney said this:

If teachers have been successful, 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. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great principal or school board president. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable school system that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in school buildings. If you’ve had higher graduation rates with your students — you didn’t do that. Somebody else made that happen. Parents and Sesame Street helped prepare those kids. PBS didn’t get invented on its own. Government funds made that happen.

Should a president of the United States denigrate individual achievement in any group — teachers, lawyers, inventors, sales people…?

When Obama went to the private Hollywood fundraiser hosted by George Clooney do you think he told the donors something like this?:

If you’ve been successful on screen, you didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was so talented. There are a lot of talented people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there’s a whole bunch of hardworking folks out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great agent or lawyer somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this fantasy world that we have allowed to continue. Somebody invested in roads and bridges for people to get to theaters. If you’ve got an Academy Award — you didn’t earn that. Somebody else made that happen.

Of course he wouldn’t say such a thing… because he doesn’t have such an animus toward them.

Obama and Warren can scold entrepreneurs for not being as virtuous and modest as liberal law professors, but is that what we need from public officials and candidates — mockery and scorn?

Voters have a new context forced on us in this election: a stagnant economy. If you believe that singling out entrepreneurs for criticism will help stimulate the economy, Obama’s speech should inspire you. If you believe he said it just to stimulate a crowd, you might want him to admit that it was his mistake, not his opponent’s.

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