Beltway Confidential

Context doesn’t improve Obama’s comments on building businesses

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Photo - President Barack Obama waves to supporters at a fundraising event in Austin, Texas, Tuesday evening, July 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman, Ralph Barrera)
President Barack Obama waves to supporters at a fundraising event in Austin, Texas, Tuesday evening, July 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman, Ralph Barrera)
Beltway Confidential

Mitt Romney’s success in going after Barack Obama’s recent declaration that, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen” has prompted liberal bloggers to charge that Obama’s comments were taken wildly out of context. But even if viewed in their full context, Obama’s comments downplay the accomplishments of successful small business owners and diminish their contributions to government.

Here’s the paragraph that is drawing the most attention:

“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.”

Obama’s defenders argue the “that” in “you didn’t build that” refers to “roads and bridges.” I’m not so sure we can make that assumption, given that “business” is the noun that directly precedes the pronoun “that.” But I don’t necessarily disagree with the general interpretation offered by liberals that Obama’s intention was to argue that government helps create the environment which allows people to build businesses. Even if we were to give Obama the benefit of the doubt in this paragraph, however, it doesn’t get him of the hook. The real damaging passage is the one that comes directly before the one cited above, in which Obama said:

 “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.

In this section, Obama isn’t arguing against Mitt Romney or the Republican Party. His argument is directed at business owners who attribute their success to their smarts and hard work. Business owners are clearly the “you” in this part of the speech, and Obama is scolding them, like a preacher, for taking too much credit for their accomplishments. Obama may not literally be claiming that government has built every business in the U.S. But he is clearly trying to urge people to allocate more credit to government and less to small business owners than they otherwise might. Aside from being unnecessarily insulting, his argument makes little sense. Everybody has access to roads and bridges, but not everybody builds successful businesses.

It’s also worth noting that Obama made this argument within the broader context of arguing for raising taxes on wealthier Americans. He said those wealthier Americans that support him “want to give something back.” The implication is that successful Americans have been freeloaders off of government under the Bush era tax rates, and now they have to help pay for the roads, bridges and public schools that helped them succeed. But as I’ve reported recently, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the top 1 percent earned 13.4 percent of income in the U.S. in 2009, but (under the Bush era rates) paid 22.3 percent of all federal taxes. The top 20 percent, who earned 50.8 percent of income, paid 67.9 percent of taxes. This doesn’t account for state income, property and sales taxes. So, in contrast to Obama’s rhetoric, wealthy Americans already give something back. In fact, they give back a lot.

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