The power of words: “You didn’t build that”

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Presidential campaigns are often built months and years in advance.  Everyone from the political advisors at the top, to the candidate, to the lowest campaign worker on the totem pole has ideas, philosophies and beliefs on the best way to solve America’s problems and the best way to sway the American voter to their candidate.  For all those tireless efforts, elections are usually decided by a quote, a well-placed, an appealing ad, or a debate performance.

At this point in the 2012 presidential election, the election appears to be swaying on the July, 13th speech that President Barack Obama’s gave in Roanoke, Virginia in which he declared:  “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.”  They are the words that won’t go away.  T-shirt and bumper sticker companies are currently producing numerous products around those nine words.  A small business called “Crumb and Get It” in New River Valley, Virginia turned down a proposed Joe Biden visit to their mom and pop store based on those nine words.  Owner Chris McMurray said that the decision to decline the photo opportunity with the vice-president, and the resultant business that was sure to follow, was based on the fact that he didn’t agree with “President Obama’s recent remarks about small business and who built what.”{1}

The fervor that has been created by those nine little words has the New York Times apoplectic.  They say that the Romney campaign, talk radio, and Fox News have taken the nine words out of context by limiting the focus of the entire speech to those nine words.  The NY Times says that the one, exasperating word that these opponents have latched onto is the word “that.”  They say that when you read the speech in context, the word “so clearly refers to roads and bridges.”{2}  They are saying that the word “that” is referring to roads and bridges?  For grammatical clarification, and tense consistency, shouldn’t he have used the word “those” in this sentence?  A read through the speech, with the NY Times guidance in mind, does show that it’s possible that that is what the President meant, but it is impossible to say that “that” “so clearly refer to roads and bridges.”

We could join the NY Times in parsing the speech all day long, but Democrats should not engage in this battle.  They should be focusing on why so many people are susceptible to the idea that the quote gives us a peek into the President’s beliefs on business.  Getting to the heart of the matter, and changing minds, will not be an easy task among small business owners and entrepreneurs.  Most of them have been convinced, rightly or wrongly, that President Obama has been anti-business for the past three years.  Most of them believe actions speak louder than words, but that the words can be a cherry atop the pie.

Tom Domke, of WBUR, sums this up thusly:

“Notice the passionate delivery by Obama. Have you ever seen (him) more animated? No, (he) seems sincerely resentful of people who have succeeded in creating their own business. Does this indicate that this law professor believes 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. The Senate candidate Scott Brown (R, MA) has a video that begins with pro-business quotes from past Democrat presidents, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton. It reminds us that Democrat leaders once understood the wisdom of what the late senator Paul Tsongas famously said at the 1992 Democrat 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?”{3}

Domke goes onto to suggest that Republican candidate Mitt Romney would’ve been as vilified if he chose to go after teachers in a similar manner, and he furthers the point by saying that presidential candidates shouldn’t go after any groups “teachers, lawyers, inventors, sales people…”  He also states that you would never hear Obama go after Hollywood actors in a similar manner, “because he doesn’t have an animus toward them.”

The debate can rage on over these nine words, and they can be placed in context, out of context, and defined in whatever context a writer chooses.  And three years ago, most citizens, business owners, and entrepreneurs may have been more inclined to disregard the comments or believe the NY Times clarification, but actions speak louder than words, and Obama has a three year record of actions in this election.  He has three years of putting his faith in government stimulus, deficit-spending, regulations and the federal bureaucracy over business.  He has three years of overseeing and signing legislation that has made life more difficult for small businesses and entrepreneurs, and that has made these citizens more susceptible to what the NY Times has basically labeled creative interpretation, and sloganeering.

There is also an idea that people bring to their interpretation of these nine words, and the animation through which Obama expresses it, that he is frustrated that more people don’t acquiesce to his ideas of regulation and taxation.  In part two of a 2008 interview between Bill O’Reilly and then presidential candidate Barack Obama, Bill O’Reilly complains about Obama’s proposed tax rates.  Obama replies, “You can afford that…”  To be fair, Obama goes onto point out that “95% of Americans will have their taxes cut.”{4}  It could be argued that while Obama has not raised federal income taxes, there are numerous other taxes and regulations that have affected the other 95% of us.  The important takeaway, however, is the blithe “You can afford that…” statement that disregards Bill O’Reilly’s complaints about taxation.  It is this similar, three year display of disregard for entrepreneurs, private sector businessmen, and taxpayers in favor of government causes that has many private business men and women susceptible to the belief that Obama was speaking directly to them when he said those nine words: “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.”






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