I do not hesitate to criticize President Obama—-severely—-not only for what I regard as his misbegotten policies, but also for his personal delinquencies (such as saying things that he knows are not true). I must in candor say, however, that I believe he is getting something of a bum rap on the statement that might, in the end, cost him the election if he ends up losing in a squeaker.
Recently I revisited the video of the President’s infamous “you didn’t build that” comment. It has been interpreted as saying to entrepreneurs and small business people that they did not build their businesses, the government did it for them. This, then, buttresses the picture of Obama as holding a fundamentally socialist outlook and having no appreciation of what it takes, and what it means, to build one’s own business.
Now, I think it is true that Obama has a dangerously inflated view of the proper role of government and very little understanding of business and the contributions to the public weal made by those risk-takers and hard workers who build businesses. But examined in context, I don’t think it is correct to interpret the “that” in “you didn’t build that” as referring to businesses.
Here, I believe, the President is telling the truth in saying that by “that” he meant the infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.) that makes it possible for businesses to flourish, but which businesses do not themselves provide. Now it is fair enough to say—-in fact, I will myself say—-that the money used by governmental authorities to build infrastructure comes from tax dollars generated by businesses (taxes on businesses, income taxes paid by business owners and their employees, etc.).
So this comment of mine is not intended as a defense of what Obama said, much less of his economic and regulatory policies generally. It is simply an ackowledgment by a rather severe critic that his comment has been misunderstood and his explanation of what he intended to say seems truthful.
Having said that, I can certainly understand why people interpreted the comment as they did—-especially in view of the President’s inflated ideas about the role of government and his insufficient appreciation of entrepreneurship and business. In the video, he seems clearly to be speaking off the cuff and he chose his words poorly. I don’t think his critics are merely taking his words out of context to distort their meaning (which is what Mitt Romney’s critics did during the primaries with his comment about “not being concerned with the poor”).
For what it’s worth, I accept the President’s account of himself on this one as truthful. And I feel obligated to say so, since I am always so forceful in going after him when I believe he is not telling the truth (as, for example, on his position on re-defining marriage, and the grounds of his opposition to the Illinois Born-Alive Infants Protection Act). Fair is fair.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?