CHARLOTTE — After being pummeled for days at the Republican National Convention for his remark that business owners “didn’t build that,” President Obama heads to the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina this week facing mounting questions about how he will respond to charges that he is hostile to free enterprise.
On Sunday, senior Obama advisers suggested that they will not address the anti-business allegations directly but will instead try to turn the tables on their GOP rivals by accusing them of being dishonest about what Obama meant. David Plouffe, a senior White House adviser, said in an interview Sunday on ABC News that Republican Mitt Romney’s campaign is engaged in a broader pattern of dishonesty and is “built on a tripod of lies.” Plouffe cited accusations that Obama has gutted the work requirement for welfare and “raided” Medicare to pay for the nation’s new health-care law as other examples of untruths coming from the GOP.
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The Obama team thinks that it has effectively dealt with the “build that” attacks and that the issue is overblown — the “drill, baby, drill” of 2012, a rallying cry for the right but ultimately one with limited appeal in the broader electorate.
Nevertheless, there are signs that they see a vulnerability. Obama has not repeated the words that sparked the controversy, and he has toned down the broader argument — that government help is essential to business success — in the six weeks since he ad-libbed the line near the end of a long campaign swing. His speeches have been shorter, with fewer references to wealthy Americans. He is more cautious about portraying the choice that he quite forcefully described that night between Romney’s worldview and his own.
Adviser David Axelrod, traveling with the president in Colorado on Sunday, said the public will come away from the convention “with a very clear sense” of Obama’s values, including his faith in private enterprise.
“It’s striking to me how enamored they are with that theme and how ineffectual it’s been,” Axelrod said. “You look at the polling and they’ve spent millions and millions of dollars on it and it may thrill their base. But it hasn’t expanded their base because people understand that the view they’re imputing to the president isn’t his view. I don’t feel like we have to respond to their dry holes.” Obama campaign advisers say internal polling shows that the GOP attacks have not shifted public opinion.
The “build that” accusations reached a fever pitch last week at the Republican convention.
Obama made the comment in July in Roanoke, saying: “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.”
Republicans have typically quoted only the last part — “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that” — prompting most independent fact checkers to conclude that the line was taken out of context. That’s Obama’s argument, too; his advisers cite numerous speeches with similar language about the important role government plays paying for roads and bridges and other infrastructure to help businesses grow and prosper.