The comments came from the tail end of 40-minute campaign speech at a Roanoke fire station on July 13.
In that speech,Obama repeated his opposition to Romney’s proposal to cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans, saying there are successful people who agree and who want instead to forgo tax breaks and “give something back.” He added that those who succeed in business are aided by personal mentors and government policies that support infrastructure and technology.
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help,” Obama said. “There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable 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.”
Obama was referring to the roads and bridges — not businesses — as having been built by government.
The theme is not a new one. Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren triggered a similar controversy last year when she said: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate.”
But coming from a sitting president, the comments were of another magnitude. While taking liberties with the context, the Romney campaign seized on “You Didn’t Build That” as a rallying cry Wednesday. It staged two-dozen “We Did Build This” rallies, including one in Richmond, where small-business owners joined Gov. Robert McDonnell in assailing the president.
“President Obama is wrong,’’ said Melissa Ball of Ball Office Products. “Americans do build their own business and we need a president who believes that as well.” Ball said she wanted to invite Obama “to hear about the struggles of real-life business owners.” According to the federal database Web site USASpending.gov, Ball has received several small federal contracts in the past, and Democrats used information like that to push back hard.
In his new ad Wednesday, Obama, looking directly into the camera, said such Republican assertions were “flat-out wrong.”
“Of course Americans build their own businesses. Every day, hardworking people sacrifice to meet a payroll, create jobs and make our economy run,” he said. “And what I said was that we need to stand behind them, as America always has, by investing in education and training, roads and bridges, research and technology.”