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



  • Fey Angel

    This is ACTUALLY what Obama said– As usual GOP twisted the truth and lied about this.

  • Figures don’t lie

    “98 percent of Catholic women don’t disagree with the Church. And thanks to the Women, Faith, and Culture Project, there’s now a study to prove that.”

    And in 2008 95% of African Americans voted for Obama.

  • Robert

    I respectfully disagree with Mr. Flahtery’s interpretation of the president’s remarks.

    Mr. Obama said, in full, “If you’ve got a business, that — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

    Note his syntactic shift: he started out saying something along the lines of, “If you’ve got a business, that [i.e., the business] wasn’t your doing / wasn’t completely your own / belongs (in part, at least) to others.” He edited “mid-stream” to soften (although not by much) his remarks to say “you didn’t build [that business].”

    Were President Obama’s remarks a slip of the tongue? Perhaps. But don’t slips of the tongue sometimes reveal more of one’s thoughts and beliefs than prepared remarks?

    • Steve


      I think you’re leaving out the vital point of this. “If you’ve got a business, that — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen,” was preceded by, “Somebody invested in roads and bridges.” You can see the extended transcript here:

      It is just as intellectually dishonest for Republicans to pretend that Obama believes that business owners are worthless as it was for Democrats to make hay about Romney’s “love of firing people” when touting the greatness of free enterprise.

      • Robert

        Steve: an earlier commenter pointed this out in this thread, so I’ll give the short version: “that” is singular. So if you are correct, that the president was referring to “roads and bridges,” he would be saying, “You didn’t build that road (singular) / bridge (singular). Somebody else made that road (singular) / bridge (singular) happen.”

        I appreciate your even-handedness, but I still believe that this was a slip that revealed something of his deepest beliefs. The quote was grammatically — and philosophically — consistent.

  • Concerned

    I thought this site is a republican site, and being an independent, made me to hate the church, but not the Bible and my Christ. After all church is composed of human and they are all vulnerable to worldly passions. At last I am happy to see somebody here talking sense, and talk about how the democracy is being hijacked by republicans by twisting the truth and lies. Church should not take any side and be neutral , and teach Bible. Jesus used common sense in his judgement, when a prostitute was about to be stoned to death. He did not use adultery to judge, but used his sense and asked who are non sinners. To kill the woman. Why Jesus being the non sinner, throw the stones and kill her.
    Church is all worked up on abortion and support a party that would kill abortion coupled with killing of all the help to poor. Jesus lived for poor, and church says literally that abortion trumps everything. Democracy will be killed when you kill the free will of the people by twisting their mind with lies. Currently republicans took the words of Obama, did cut and paste with technology, and made it to look like that he is our enemy. Psychologist are traing politicians on how and selectively answer questions and play mind games to twist the listeners. Voter I’d, redistricting, and these twist and lies, are not healthy to democracy, and we should fight back to end this , or else we would end up like a third world elections. If you really think about this, it’s equivalent to voter rigging through back door. This is America, we are the cream of crop, a symbol of democracy, so we do not want church to be a part of the corruption.
    I am a catholic by birth, and I will die as catholic, nothing won’t change, but at the same time I follow Christ, and nothing will not shake my faith, but I use common sense and never get caught up with one issue and lose thousands of good things. I am doing well in life, but it does not mean that I can neglect my neighbor and people in need. Killing whole Obamacare is not the solution for abortion, think of how much it helps poor people, and unfortunate middle class who fall into the trap of poverty. Republicans never tried to create any plans on healthcare,except President Nixon, to whom I have more respect. What republicans did all this time was to kill it to satisfy insurance companies.
    So I do not want church to fall into trap to use abortion part to kill the whole thing. My point is nothing is perfect, but once we have something in the system , then we go in take out , or change what is not right, and make it better over the time. We are not a nation in rich people, but mixed, and God never created rich to look after poor, or poor as slaves to rich.
    Church has already a bad name as people claim that they were supporting Nazis in ww2, may be due to the reason, Rome was in Italy that was ruled by Dictator Mussolini, who was a Nazi. They need to stay in middle , instead of supporting the powerfull. One more thing, if church is concerned with human suffering, where were they when they had civil rights movement. Now they have the power to make political speeches, and they did not do it at that time, but why now. Is it because this is coupled with money or fear of losing powerful friends.
    I want my church to be neutral, and God will save us, as he is omnipowerful, and God does not need our help rule his kingdom. Judgement is God’s right, not ours.
    Its my right to fight if church is wrong, and church cannot excommunicate me for telling them, and do not expect that if we believe in God, then we have the obligation to obey or listen everything that church tells us. God has given us the wisdom, intelligence, and choice, so let’s use it .
    One more thing that bothers me, is whether church would have allowed the child abuse by priests to continue, if they were not caught. Did the church had a time table to put an end to it before they were forced by authorities.
    I hope Cathilic vote would allow this comment, as I am very much concerned about the direction of this country and church, but nothing to shake my faith in Christ, who is the alpha and omega, and we are just dust in between.

  • Joe M

    Dan. Obama said “you didn’t build that.” “You” being the business owner and “that” being the business. He goes further than that, suggesting that business owners think they are smarter and work harder than everyone else. — It was an untenable statement motivated by an interest to appeal to envy. In other words, Obama threw American businesses under the bus in an attempt to gain votes and thus power. — I’m sure that you’re right that Obama understands technically that business owners do a lot of work while relying on others. But, that is a small point next to the significance of what that speech revealed. Any way you slice it after, it’s still a walk-back that deserves noting.

  • Antonio A. Badilla

    While this is true, “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 is also true that “you did not build that,” also showed the contempt this President has for people who have built their own businesses and the love he has for a nanny State that supposedly takes care of everyone.



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