How “You Didn’t Build That” Became Obama’s Newest Gaffe

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July 19 2012 3:43 PM

Say the Magic Word

How partisans gave special meaning to Obama’s words, “you didn't build that.”

Obama Speech.
President Obama speaking in Roanoke, Va. on July 13. In the following days, conservatives jumped on his remarks.

Photograph by Mandel Ngan/Getty Images.

Why did it take so long for Mitt Romney’s campaign to realize that Barack Obama dry-heaved at the thought of businessmen? It was on July 13, late evening, the president gave an unusually unteleprompted speech at Fire Station No. 1 in Roanoke, Va. and riffed that “if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.” No news outlet led with that part of his speech. According to The Roanoke Times, Obama framed the election “as a choice between boosting the middle class or helping the rich.” Local ABC-13 reported that Obama was fed up with gridlock and Republican economics.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

But conservative bloggers and tweeters found a different lede. On July 14, a conservative North Carolina activist named Erik Soderstrom put up a 12-second clip that made it sound like Obama gave business owners no credit for building anything. On July 15, a Sunday, the video-aggregating blog the Right Scoop put up a long video of the key Obama lines. On July 16, the RNC’s “rapid response” team finally released a clip of the Obama riff, and Fox News started running stories. And that evening, 72 hours after the speech, the Romney campaign alerted reporters to the fact that Fox News commentator Brit Hume found the Obama speech revealing.

Maybe the timing—Friday-Saturday-Sunday—explained the delay. But Romney surrogates appeared on Sunday talk shows, wringing their hands about the candidate’s tax returns, when they could have picked up the new Obama quote and bludgeoned Democrats. The conservative media took the lead on this one. They found a classic Kinsley gaffe, sure, but a new kind of Kinsley gaffe.

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Call it a magic word gaffe—a statement that reveals not what a politician believes, but what you already feared, in your bone marrow, that a politician believes. Democrats still can’t understand why Obama’s speech is supposed to offend anyone. Republicans know that he’s a closet socialist, and that this sentiment only comes out when his energy is flagging.

Brit Hume explained this first and best. “It is fair to say that we know more tonight than we ever have about the president's view of business and the economy,” he said. More than we ever have? “His assertion over the weekend that ‘if you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen’ explains nearly everything. He wasn't talking about God. He was talking about government.”

This makes no sense to Democrats. When hasn’t Obama said this? In his 2008 nomination speech, for example, then-candidate Obama talked endlessly about safety nets letting “someone with a good idea … take a risk and start a new business” without having to “choose between keeping their jobs and caring for a sick child.” The Washington Examiner’s Conn Carroll points out that Obama’s Roanoke speech merely “made a long-standing and fundamental liberal argument in an unappealing way.” The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent argues that Mitt Romney, who does not plan to dismantle the Small Business Administration or the Department of Education, concedes some of the argument.

But the Romney campaign has located sad-eyed businessmen who think Obama literally does not think they build anything. A viral column by John Kass (10,000+ Facebook shares), describes an Obama who “stands there at the front of the mob, in his shirt sleeves, swinging that government hammer, exhorting the crowd to use its votes and take what it wants.” Like Lenin, like Marx, like Big Brother, he wants to raise the marginal tax rate on income over $250,000.

The magic word gaffe wasn’t invented this week. Liberals in the George W. Bush era—many of whom doubted that he would beat Al Gore—did pioneering work. From time to time, Bush would joke that “a dictatorship would be a heck of a lot easier” than the American political system. (I think that’s true, although you’d lose a lot of ad revenue from biennial elections.) That comment appears in millions of unexpected Internet hot zones, because for a certain kind of Bush critic, it sounded true, even when Bush failed to become president-for-life. After 9/11, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer chastened Bill Maher for saying that Mohammed Atta et al were not cowards. “There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say,” said Fleischer. Gore Vidal quickly turned that into Fleischer telling the press “you better watch what you say,” proof of mounting threats to free speech from the Bush regime.

A normal gaffe is usually discovered by the “mainstream” press, or by a rival campaign, in real time. Think about the Obama campaign hounding John McCain on his “the fundamentals of the economy are sound” as Lehman collapsed. Think about “the private sector is doing fine” becoming proof, for Romney, that Obama saw no problems in the private sector. The magic word gaffe takes more digging, because the media that mostly covers campaigns aren’t primed to hear what partisans hear.

Barack Obama’s presidency has been full of these moments. If you watched Glenn Beck during his Fox News years, you got endless exposure (more than 100 episodes of it, according to Lexis-Nexis) to an Oct. 30, 2008 quote from an Obama rally in Columbia, Mo. “We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America,” said the candidate.

Hang on—fundamentally transform? Obama seemed to be talking about his policy agenda (“you can turn the page on policies that put greed and irresponsibility on Wall Street”), because these came off like magic words. “Barack Obama has said he wants to fundamentally transform this country,” said Beck in September 2009. “Boy, I don't. I would like to work on some of the things we kind of stink at.”

By 2011, when Beck sat down with Rick Santorum, the secret meaning of “fundamentally” had become the accepted meaning. “He wanted to change America,” said Santorum. “Fundamentally transform,” Beck corrected. “Fundamental change in America,” said the candidate. “And guess what? He is doing it.” The president had revealed how radical his agenda was; the media betrayed us by not warning us.

Conservatives like Santorum and Sarah Palin hear these magic words right away. Mitt Romney doesn’t. It’s a minor but important reason why conservatives still hardly trust him. How can he run against Obama if he says the Fundamental Transformer is a “good man?” Doesn’t he get that this election is about radicalism versus the possible eradication of freedom? This week, they got him to listen.

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