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