Memewatch: Did Obama Say That Successful People Didn't Earn What They Have?

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
July 16 2012 3:50 PM

Memewatch: Did Obama Say That Successful People Didn't Earn What They Have?

I noticed the hashtag sometime over the weekend, and it still looks to be humming.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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What the hell is this referring to? The line being parodied was uttered by the president in Roanoke, Virginia. Naturally, it broke this way on Fox News.

President Obama, in a speech to supporters, suggested business owners owe their success to government investment in infrastructure and other projects -- saying “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.”

The story has been shared 28,000 times, setting up a game of "What was the full quote?" It was this:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me -- because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t -- look, 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.  (Applause.)
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.
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

It's a rough-hewn clone of Elizabeth Warren's famed YouTube spiel about how business owners owed much to infrastructure and regulators. But this version is a bit of a ramble, anf you can tell, because Obama never repeated this riff. And the looseness suggests that Obama left out a sentence or a clause. "Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that." Did he mean that you, small businessman, didn't build the roads and bridges? And if he didn't, is it politically offensive to suggest that businesses are built by more than sweat, blood, and John Galt quotes? Maybe, and yes.

Pretty stupid, but this White House knows how to panic (see "Sherrod, Shirley"), and the new success riff goes like this:

God bless folks who are doing successful -- who are successful and doing well.  The only thing that Michelle's parents, my mom, my grandparents, the only thing they didn’t like is when you felt like folks at the top were taking advantage of their position and not following the same rules as everybody else and keeping other folks down.

Remember: High-level political journalism means waiting for politicians to say things the wrong way, and then making progressively bigger fusses about that.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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