Well, it’s payback time.
If you haven’t already, you will soon encounter an email, blog post or hashtag mocking President Obama for his recent comments about business and success.
“If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that,” Obama told a crowd in Roanoke, Va., on Friday. “Somebody else made that happen.”
“You didn’t build that” has been a slow-building theme since – pushed by every corner of the GOP. Romney added it to a stump speech Monday. It’s a hashtag, of course, with House Speaker John Boehner and other prominent Republicans feeding the Twitter mill. No Romney surrogate worth his or her salt has spoken in the last few days without mentioning it. Romney’s campaign is raising money off the quote, with an email solicitation that describes it as nothing less than “a slap in the face to the American Dream.”
Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.) jumped in with a survey on his Facebook page: “Who do you think is responsible for creating American businesses? Choice No. 1: American people, small-business owners and entrepreneurs. Or choice No. 2: the government. (As of this afternoon, the American people were leading 11-0.)
All of this is the standard mechanics of modern campaigning. A candidate’s comments are regularly isolated, packaged into talking points and distribute through every social media outlet available. Democrats and Romney former GOP rivals practiced the art in January when Romney tried to make a point about the importance of the free market by saying “I like to be able to fire people who provide services to me.” A ringtone was born.
Like that comment, Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comes with some context that helps explain why someone actually wanting to win an election would ever say such a thing. The president was arguing that public investment in education, infrastructure and research fosters private business. In return, so the argument goes, successful business leaders have an interest in supporting government programs. (Obama was actually borrowing this riff from Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, a provenance that doesn’t do anything to defuse conservative attacks.)
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help,” Obama said. “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 Obama campaign has accused Romney of “distorting the president’s words.”
But in the Roanoke remark, the president’s critics see the best sort of gaffe – the kind that underscores a central campaign theme. Republicans are arguing that the president doesn’t understand how to revive the economy because he doesn’t understand private business. Romney, a former chief executive, does, they say. The Wall Street Journal was among a handful of conservative voices that jumped on the comment as more evidence that the president is “subordinating to government the individual enterprise and risk-taking that underlies prosperity.”
Romney’s attempt to seize the moment on the stump came with less punch. As he spoke Tuesday, the former Massachusetts governor came close to agreeing with the president.
“Of course he describes people who we care very deeply about, who make a difference in our lives: schoolteachers, firefighters, people who build roads,” Romney said, summarizing the president’s remarks. “We need those things. We value schoolteachers, firefighters, people who build roads. You really couldn’t have a business if you didn’t have those things. But you know, we pay for those things … we pay for them, and we benefit from them, and we appreciate the work that they do, and the sacrifices that are done by people who work in government, but they did not build this business.”