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Obama’s ‘You didn’t build that’ problem

at 12:56 PM ET, 07/18/2012

President Obama’s recent remark about business owners needing the government’s help is starting to gain traction on the campaign trail.


President Obama speaks at a fundraising event in Austin on Tuesday. (Jack Plunkett/AP)
“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that,” Obama said Friday, referring to the government-funded tools that entrepreneurs have at their disposal.

The remark didn’t catch on initially, but Republicans anxious to move past Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital controversy and whether he will or won’t release his tax returns have increasingly fixated on the remark as Case Study No. 1 when it comes to Obama’s big-government philosophy.

And it just might work.

The fact is that Obama’s remark is only the latest example of the president embracing — intentionally or not — the label of a big-government Democrat.

Here’s the entire quote:

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.”

His words this time were a little stronger (or perhaps impolitic), but he’s said basically the same thing before.

From June: “Yes, there have been fierce arguments throughout our history between both parties about the exact size and role of government — some honest disagreements. But in the decades after World War II, there was a general consensus that the market couldn’t solve all of our problems on its own.”

From his January State of the Union Address: “... Even my Republican friends who complain the most about government spending have supported federally financed roads and clean energy projects and federal offices for the folks back home. The point is, we should all want a smarter, more effective government.”

From 2009, before his stimulus package passed: “Only government can break the vicious cycles that are crippling our economy, where a lack of spending leads to lost jobs which leads to even less spending.”

The problem with Obama’s latest exhortation that “you didn’t build that” is not that it’s not true. The context of the remark makes it pretty clear that he’s referring to government-funded things like teachers and roads that make entre­pre­neur­ship possible.

But for Obama, his problem is a matter of emphasis.

While Obama often takes care to also say that government can’t and shouldn’t do everything and that regulations should be rolled back, for example, his message on the government’s necessary role in the economy is often the one that sticks in people’s minds.

In large part, this is because he’s talking about the role of government in a way most Democrats don’t. If you want a sense of how Democrats have handled this issue in recent years, look no further than Bill Clinton’s “the era of big government is over” quote from 1996.

The fact is that Republicans have gotten great mileage out of labeling Democrats as big-government liberals and tax-raisers over the past few decades. Clinton did what he could to separate himself from that label, but Obama doesn’t appear to be nearly as concerned about it.

And recent polling suggests that it could hurt him. As The Post’s polling team wrote on The Fix last week, Obama’s big-government image is one of the main reasons people oppose him. Among independents, 42 percent said Obama’s views on the role of government are a main reason to oppose him, versus just 20 percent who say it’s a reason to support him.

Obama’s team argues that he is pushing for an increase in government funding for programs that are broadly popular, like education, research and development, and clean energy.

But the bluntness of his “you didn’t build that” quote threatens to obscure those details. After all, Obama was basically addressing business owners directly in a way that Republicans can cast as adversarial. And Republicans are going to make sure that those four words are litigated extensively.

“To say that Steve Jobs didn’t build Apple, that Henry Ford didn’t build Ford Motors, that Papa John didn’t build Papa John Pizza ... To say something like that, it’s not just foolishness. It’s insulting to every entrepreneur, every innovator in America,” Romney said Tuesday in Pennsylvania.

The situation harkens to Obama’s health-care bill, the stimulus and his position on tax cuts for the wealthy. While polling shows all three had some very popular aspects, Republicans have effectively used them to label Obama as a big-government tax-raiser. And the first two, in particular, have hurt Obama’s party significantly.

As with those issues, if Republicans play their cards right, they’ve got a quote to hang over Obama’s head and further define him along those lines for the next three and a half months.

 
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