Reining In “You Didn’t Build That” Rhetoric

The Republican Convention was wrapped up and a few themes were hit repeatedly—that while President Obama inherited a difficult situation he made it worse, then he’s better at talking than at doing and that he is in the throes of an ideology that has failed everywhere it’s been tried. Agree or disagree with that assessment, it’s certainly fair fodder for debate these next two months. But there was one common point that the speakers in Tampa also hammered in that’s a little less than fair and it’s the interpretation of the president’s infamous words at Roanoke earlier this summer regarding entrepreneurship—“You didn’t build that.”

Let’s be clear on a few points—the context of Obama’s remarks at Roanoke make it clear he was not attempting to say that business owners didn’t build their businesses. Rather, he was saying that the success of businesses is enabled by governmental initiatives such as building the infrastructure, and that other people also helped in their success.

It's not necessary to distort President Obama's words to business owners in order to critique them effectively.

That’s not to say that Obama’s remarks, accurately interpreted, can’t be subjected to fair criticism. As I wrote here at CV in the immediate aftermath of Roanoke, the fact that one supports the government building highways or setting up a court system to enforce contracts in no way obligates one to support Barack Obama’s modern political agenda. The fact the business owners benefit from relationships with other people and have those that they feel grateful for,  is not something to be manipulated to gain support for a contemporary political agenda.

Or, if I’m reading too much into the president’s words, then I’m not sure who exactly who he thinks he was talking to, given there is no current political movement that suggests the government shouldn’t build highways and enforce laws, nor is there any prominent social movement that suggests human beings succeed in a vacuum, completely independent of everyone else. Either Obama is trying to gain support for his political agenda on very shaky grounds or he made a speech so blitheringly innocuous it doesn’t bear talking about. My inclination is the former, but whatever you take out of it, he clearly did not attempt to say that entrepreneurs did not build their businesses.

There’s nothing more aggravating than having to defend something you never said. Come next week in Charlotte at the Democratic Convention we’re going to hear speakers toss us their own version of exaggerations, from claiming that legalized contraception is in danger (because someone might have to deal with a $9 co-pay) to the usual left-wing charges of some sort of secret racism. One can deal with this by responding in kind or responding in truth. There’s plenty in the Obama record, including a legitimate interpretation of his speech at Roanoke, to respond effectively in truth. Let’s keep it in those boundaries.

Dan Flaherty is the author of Fulcrum, an Irish Catholic novel set in postwar Boston with a traditional Democratic mayoral campaign at its heart, and he is the editor-in-chief of



  • Hopeforthedeaf

    President Obama starts many sentences with “Let me be perfectly clear”, which is translated into whatever I want it to really mean. Who, in this nation, accepts him as a great orator? Answer: Anyone who believes his speech of “words are important”, but chooses not to listen, to the words from his mouth.



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