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

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.

"That's how we created the middle class," he said. "We created." Collectively.

Except that is entirely wrong. American individuals created the first American middle class while subjects of King George III.

"In the early stages of a colony's settlement, rapid upward mobility was very common," historian Edwin Perkins wrote in The Economy of Colonial America. "Land was initially easy to acquire, and many families which started with little capital became relatively wealthy after two or three generations. Many indentured servants, who served out terms of 4 to 7 years of quasi-slavery, went on to become tenant farmers, later bought land, and eventually accumulated sizable wealth, sometimes joining the colonial elite."

The "system" did not create America's middle class. The free middle class rebelled against the king to create the system, and their own wealth. Does Obama think that John Hancock, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and John Adams owed their wealth to the British government? Does he think King George "allowed" them to prosper?

Obama believes that government is the pre-existing condition for the creation of prosperity.

Obama's one nugget of a point -- that infrastructure facilitates commerce -- is disputed by no one. Nor does any serious person dispute that everyone should pay for that infrastructure or for the essential services the people have tasked the government with providing. It is a fundamentally American principle.

"Every man is under the natural duty of contributing to the necessities of the society; and this is all the laws should enforce on him," Jefferson wrote to F.W. Gilmer in 1816.

What had always separated our "system," to use the president's word, from other systems was not that we had fire departments and teachers and roads and bridges. Europe has much grander examples of all of those. What we had, and others did not, was a tight constraint on the scope of government action and a population that is extraordinarily industrious and entrepreneurial.

That industrious population voted to create commerce-facilitating infrastructure, and paid the taxes to build it. That their descendants benefited from those investments in no way obligates them to "give back" to the government additional shares of their wealth. There is nothing to return, for nothing of theirs belongs to the state. Their wealth, such as it may be from household to household, is theirs by right. They earned it. That they did so by using the infrastructure their forebears built on their behalf gives no one a claim to anything they created. As Jefferson wrote, all citizens have a "duty of contributing to the necessities of society," that is, of paying taxes, but that comes from their membership in society. That duty does not expand because the state desires expansion, or because one has partaken of societal benefits already paid for.

Obama's belief in the state's claim to the wealth individual Americans created through their own initiative is absolutely plain. It ought to have been a slam dunk issue for the Romney campaign. And yet the campaign bungled its response. This was the perfect issue for Romney to address personally. Romney's likability is low. A lot of Americans have not warmed to him. This was his chance to speak directly to the American people in a calm, reassuring way to show that he understands them and President Obama does not.

Romney should have cut a television ad in which he spoke directly to the viewer, perhaps from a small town main street somewhere in New Hampshire or Ohio with lots of American flags waving in the background, or from inside an old-fashioned general store. It could start with the "you didn't build that" clip, then cut to Romney, in shirtsleeves and jeans, and go something like this:

I know what it's like to start a business, to risk my family's future on a dream. I've been there. In my career, I was even fortunate enough to help other hard-working Americans realize their own dreams. You heard the president. He thinks you didn't earn your success because you used taxpayer-funded roads, bridges and schools. He thinks you should pay even higher taxes because you used public services you already paid for. I don't see things that way, and I think most Americans don't either. I think most Americans understand that their success is their own achievement, and that our highways and schools and bridges are our achievements, too. Sure, we have to work together to achieve our shared goals. But we don't succeed as a nation when we deny others their success, when we tear others down to build ourselves up. We won't rebuild our economy if we keep pitting ourselves against each other. That's not the American way. If I am your president, it won't be my way.

Instead, the campaign made an ad that did not feature Romney and implied that Obama meant entrepreneurs did not build their businesses. It failed to create an emotionally favorable impression of the candidate, and it gave the Obama campaign a point to rebut. It was Obama who cut an ad in which he spoke directly and reassuringly to the American people.

That the issue remains relevant nearly a month after Obama's remarks is a testament not to the Romney campaign's sinister manipulative powers, but to the power of the president's own words. No spin by Romney, no additional context from the White House, can change what the president actually said. It was a raw statement of deep philosophical belief.

Only two things are saving Obama from the full force of his words. One is his own verbosity. Had he been able to express his full thought in two lines instead of four paragraphs, there would be no escape. As it is, most Americans will never hear or read the full remarks. The other is the singular inability of the Romney campaign to capitalize fully on Obama's mistakes to create a favorable impression of Romney. Even with an issue tailor made for Romney, the campaign can't get it to fit quite right.

Since Obama said those four little words, he has risen three points in the polls and Romney has dropped five. It could be that Americans no longer believe in the Jeffersonian concept of America. Or it could be that Romney blew his response, and Americans have not been shown how radical the president's words really are.