What 'You Didn't Build That' Really Means—and Why Romney Can't Explain It

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It's only a four-word phrase, but to conservatives, it means so much more.

[optional image description]Building the White House in 1792. (Smithsonian Institution)

President Obama uttered those four little words Republicans never tire of hearing -- "you didn't build that" -- on July 13, nearly a month ago, and yet if you do a Google News search for "Obama you didn't build that" you will turn up nearly 70,000 hits, the most recent posted within hours. It was a self-inflicted wound from which the president's reelection campaign continues to bleed steadily, if not profusely, despite the Romney campaign's not entirely satisfactory assault on the injured tissue. The election drawing ever closer in the mid-August heat, liberals wonder why the issue will not go away, and conservatives wonder why it did not immediately doom Obama's campaign. Both questions have the same answer: Obama made a shift so profound, but so easily misunderstood, that neither side has been able to end the debate, although Obama thus far is winning.

Here is what Obama said at Fire Station No. 1 in Roanoke, Va., (which Obama won with 61 percent of the vote in 2008, an island of blue in the sea of red that was western Virginia). I include the entire relevant quote so there is no question about the context:

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.

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. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don't do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That's how we funded the G.I. Bill. That's how we created the middle class. That's how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That's how we invented the Internet. That's how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that's the reason I'm running for President -- because I still believe in that idea. You're not on your own, we're in this together.

Like any classic, it is just as good the hundredth time as it was the first time and the Romney campaign has kept repeating the snippet, "If you've got a business -- you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen." But by "that," did Obama mean the "business" or the "roads and bridges" of the previous sentence? Let's be charitable and take the White House at its word that the president meant to say "those" and not "that." Is the whole controversy then a Machiavellian construction of the "right-wing noise machine?"

No. It clearly is not. Even by the most favorable interpretation, the president uttered something worthy of enormous controversy -- a philosophical rewriting of the American story. And the Romney campaign has not exploited this fully.

On behalf of all Americans, the Declaration of Independence asserts, in Thomas Jefferson's words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...

Jefferson, whom Democrats claim as the progenitor of their party and whom they celebrate with annual "Jefferson-Jackson Dinners," was perfectly clear. The people of the United States created the government for one purpose only: to secure their rights. That is, the people, their possessions and their God-given rights existed prior to the state, which the people created to serve them.

With his Roanoke speech, Obama turned Jefferson on his head. In Obama's formulation, government is not a tool for the people's use, but the very foundation upon which all of American prosperity is built. Government is not dependent upon the people; the people are dependent upon the government.

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 system "allowed you to thrive." That is fundamentally non-Jeffersonian. You succeeded because a greater power -- the state -- bestowed its favor upon you. The setup, the whole reason for the argument, is Obama's contention that your wealth is not your creation, but an allowance from the state:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me -- because they want to give something back.

"You didn't build that" was the clincher that would justify the demand to "give something back." Not "give," but "give... back." The distinction is critical. Your wealth, he clearly and unmistakably asserts, is not your creation, it was given -- allowed -- by the state. And now the state wants some of it back. Refuse and you are denying the state its rightful claim to the wealth it "helped" you to create.

Whereas Jefferson believed that the people, their property and their God-given rights were the pre-existing condition for the creation of limited government, Obama believes that government is the pre-existing condition for the creation of prosperity.

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Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader.

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