You can tell President Obama’s defenders believe Mitt Romney’s new attack on Obama’s “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that” comment is an existential threat to his campaign by the sheer volume of pixels devoted to the topic. Problem is, they just can’t quite agree on how to defend him.
Writing on Talking Points Memo‘s Benjy Sarlin claimed the “that” Obama’s quote was a “crystal clear” reference to “road and bridges” not “business.” But then this morning, The Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent claimed “that” was “plainly intended” to refer to the “American system.” Asked to clarify which words liberals claim “that” refers to over twitter, Sargent responded “American system.”
He might want to run that by the Obama campaign. They released a statement claiming that “that” “clearly refers to roads and bridges.”
The New Republic‘s Timothy Noah isn’t buying his colleagues dissembling either he writes:
Some liberal defenders of the president, including Benjy Sarlin of Talking Points Memo and my esteemed TRB predecessor, Jonathan Chait, have tried to get Obama off the hook through a tortured interpretation of these words. They argue that the grammatical antecedent to “that” isn’t “business” but “roads and bridges.” According to their interpretation, Obama wasn’t saying, “You didn’t build your business.” He was saying “You didn’t build the roads and bridges that made it possible to build your business.” But that’s a reach. The word “business” appears immediately before “you didn’t build that” and “Somebody else made that happen.” And besides, if Obama had been referring to “roads and bridges,” he wouldn’t have said “that.” He’d have said “those.” You didn’t build those. Somebody else made those happen.
On the larger point, U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren doubled down on Obama’s rhetoric. Asked for her opinion on Obama’s “you didn’t build that statement,” Warren told The Boston Herald:
I think the basic notion is right. Nobody got rich on their own. Nobody. People worked hard, they build a business, God bless, but they moved their goods on roads the rest of us helped build, they hired employees the rest of us helped educate, they plugged into a power grid the rest of us helped build.
Sargent makes a big deal out of the fact that Obama also said, “There are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.” But this doesn’t change the fact that the whole point of Obama’s riff here is, as Noah points out, to “belittle entrepreneurship.” Obama and Warren are making the case for higher taxes by minimizing the contribution small business owners made to their own success. The more government is responsible for someone’s success, the more right the government has to claim their property in the form of taxes. As Red State contributor Dan McLaughlin wrote last night:
The parties have genuine differences on the extent to which govt must justify its exactions from taxpayers. Obama is trying to lower bar. This is not a misunderstanding; if you convince people that success has little to do w/work & merit, you justify more burdens on successful. Obama is also drawing on a long tradition, esp. in legal academia, of trying to define property rights as gifts state lets you keep. This debate is fundamental & philosophical, & pervades policy debates on taxes, healthcare, etc. It is hugely important to have.
McLaughlin is right. You can read Obama White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Administrator Cass Sunstein’s contribution to the left’s legal academic argument here.
The real problem with Obama’s quote is that it made a long-standing and fundamental liberal argument in an unappealing way. Conservatives have every right to make him pay for the misstep.