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Opinion: Obama "You Didn't Build That" Comment Incites Class Warfare

Friday, July 20, 2012 - 01:00 PM

President Barack Obama speaks about urging the US Congress to act on extending tax cuts for middle class families in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, July 9, 2012. (Getty)

Ever since President Obama made his anti-business comments there has been an outcry by liberals that his words were taken out of context. I would never want to misquote my president so here is the full comment:

Look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

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.

The argument from the left goes that Obama didn't mean that you didn't build your business, just that you didn't build your own roads. Let's disregard for a moment that, as James Taranto points out, the grammar insists he meant business (singular-that) and not roads and bridges (plural-those). Let's forget that it is obvious to a mule (it sounds better in Russian--"kanyoo yasna") that most people didn't build their own roads. And let's not think about the fact that business owners, particularly successful ones demonized here, pay the high taxes that pay for those roads and bridges.

The theme in Obama's words is undeserved success. Obama didn't accidentally say that the successful didn't make it on their own. Take a good look at his opponent. Mitt Romney was born rich, that's true, (his father was a successful auto exec) but not the kind of rich he would eventually become on his own. Barack Obama was taking the world's most obvious shot at Mitt Romney for being successful and when it blew up in his face it became a case of being misquote or words taken out of context. That's simply not true. Most of Barack Obama's monetary success came from his bestselling books. Now we're supposed to believe that the man who earned his multi-million dollar wealth writing books clumsily tumbled over words. Unlikely.

The other reason that the president is attacking business owners is that it creates a convenient "us vs. them" dynamic in a time of high unemployment and economic uncertainty. Instead of taking responsibility that his policies have done nothing to improve our unemployment numbers, the president can instead turn the rage of the unemployed and underpaid onto those who have been successful.

It isn't Obama failing you, it's these rich people who don't recognize that your hard work helped get them there. Perhaps what the unemployed are really lacking is the same access to roads, bridges and teachers as the successful. Or perhaps Barack Obama is playing a class warfare game to win an election.

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Comments [26]

Marcello from Brooklyn

I was frankly convinced that Karol Marcowicz was not going to stoop as low as to jump on this latest pathetic manipulation of reality that is the norm of conservatives' campaign of systematic misinformation. But, alas, here we are...one more proof of the shocking uniformity of the conservative mind: open to be fed anything, it will obediently regurgitate according to the party directives, no matter how absurd.
Here are a few points:

1 – Obama's remarks are not anti-business. What he said is something very obvious (except to the conservative mind...) and that I have repeated often on this blog: that businesses are dependent for their success on the infrastructure that the public sector creates: roads, ports and airports and especially schools and the public education system that provides enterprenurial job-creators with the educated labor to utilize as accountants, human resource directors, payroll managers etc. Public universities that make higher education (and therefore enterprenurial opportunities...) accessible for a vast number of people. Police and Fire depts. that protect private property (one of the pillars of a functioning capitalist system) and laws and a court system that foster a climate of legality where the enterprenurial can flourish.
(CONTINUES BELOW)

Jul. 28 2012 01:13 PM
Marcello from Brooklyn

2 – Are businesses the only ones dependent of this infrastrucuture? No, we all are and we all fund it through taxes according to our ability and to our use of it. The rich, fund it to a higher extent through higher taxes because they give more and because they use it more: if I have a bakery I depend on the public roads to deliver my products more than would if I were a teacher. If you are a successful enterpreneur and you pay higher taxes (which is one of KM's recurring objections) it's because their use of the “common wealth” is higher (if I own a million dollar house, the protection of the police and fire dept. will be more valuable to me than to someone who owns a house half that value). Similarly, if you and I consume more electricity we will pay a higher electric bill.

3 – After having conveniently manipulated this issue in the most nauseating way to stoke resentment against Obama and to create an issue out of the most obvious and uncontroversial statement, conservatives like KM have the face to talk about an “us vs. them” dynamic.
(CONTINUES BELOW)

Jul. 28 2012 01:12 PM
Marcello from Brooklyn

4 – Obama's economic policies have reversed the devastating trend that we inherited from the Bush administration and the conservative crash of 2007-09. He came into office with a shrinking economy while we have had an expanding economy for the last three years. This expansion picked up at a robust pace while the effect of his keynesian policies were still strong and faded away as these effects faded just as it has been repeated over and over by many economists who have been saying that the stimulus was too small to last.
If conservatives were to regain the majority they would implement the only economic policy that they have for good and bad times: tax cuts. But since taxes rates have been exactly at the same low since Bush cut them and since they have been complaining of the tepid recovery we had in these last few months, then shouldn't we conclude that tax cuts have done nothing for our economy? The only real expansion happened following Obama's stimulus that conservatives have fought tooth and nail.

5 – The climate of economic uncertainity in these last months in the US and in the world are directly related to the currency crisis in Europe that has exploded exactly because the conservative government of Europe's leading economy, Germany, has implemented many of the same policies that our american conservative knuckleheads would love to have here: fiscal austerity and non-intervention on the part of the Central Bank (which in the case of the ECB, is structural).
(CONTINUES BELOW)

Jul. 28 2012 01:09 PM
Marcello from Brooklyn

6 – In a rare responses to one of the comments KM asks “Why is it that unsuccessful people, with access to the same schools and roads, don't make it? Could Obama be a little clearer on why that happens?”. Really?...Do you really need to be explained something like that?...
The reason Karol is that we are not all the same! Society is made up of billions of people who are all completely different from each other with different talents, different inclinations, different interests, different cultural backgrounds and different cognitive processes. It is just obvious (to almost anyone...) that a plurality of different individuals will produce different outcomes and the role of government is not to equalize these outcomes (that is socialism) but just to give everybody the same opportunities for success which, by the way, also means diferent things to different people so I wuld love to ask you what do you mean when you say “unsuccessful people”?
(CONTINUES BELOW)

Jul. 28 2012 01:07 PM
Marcello from Brooklyn

7 – Here is another of KM's recurring themes: “According to the Tax Foundation, in 2008 "[t]he top 5 percent earned 31.7 percent of the nation's adjusted gross income, but paid approximately 58.7 percent of federal individual income taxes"." The top 10% pay 70%. What more do you want? Blood?”
No Karol, we don't want blood. We want brains, more specifically, functioning brains...
So, for the 100th time since I started to follow this blog: first “the rich” make more of their money not from income but from capital gains that are taxed at a rate that is approx. a half of ours common mortals. Second: taxes are progressive and therefore they are a reflection of wealth and income. Therefore, to say that the rich already pay a huge percentage of taxes, only means that they HAVE a huge percentage of income and wealth so if you are trying to say that the problem with skewed taxation is that this country has a problem with SOCIAL INEQUALITY then yes, you are completely right about that.

Jul. 28 2012 01:05 PM

@Darrell -

Repeat your fantasy about Obama 'not understanding' all you like. It's just an NLP trick to convince yourself of something you KNOW is not true.

Step away from the kool-aid jug for a while...Clear your head and try again.

Jul. 26 2012 11:34 AM
Barry Frier from E. Village

Does no-one remember that Elizabeth Warren made this point last September, in a much clearer and more compassionate way: "There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there - good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory... Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea - God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”
― Elizabeth Warren
Obama's tone was all wrong....... and interesting that he's quoting her without attribution.

Jul. 26 2012 04:17 AM
Darrell from Harpers Ferry, WV

We need a President who understands and supports the business community and who has policies that will encourage them to create more jobs. What we have is a President who has established policies that make it more difficult for businesses to thrive and that encourage more dependency on government. If we continue down that path, the end result is economic ruin. We need smaller, more efficient government that encourages personal accountability and hard work rather than dependency and sloth. Obama simply doesn't seem to understand how America became the political and economic powerhouse that it is. Continuation of his policies will destroy this country and the rest of the world along with it.

Jul. 24 2012 09:50 AM

Karol -

You really don't think you are quoting the man wildly out of context here?

The President is referring to the 'roads and bridges' as the objects that the current small business owner did not build. To cast it any other way is just deceitful.

Romney is a pol and (to some extent) can be forgiven for slanting the truth - though he does it too much to be trusted in my opinion - but you have *some* journalistic responsibility to quote accurately and not simply carry the party line.

Jul. 23 2012 10:28 AM
nycUES from 646

I don't see anything wrong with Obama's comment. The hysteria this whips up among the right says mare about them and their readiness to jump on Obama than anything else. Governments create physical and civil infrastructure in order to let their citizens make themselves prosperous. That doesn't mean that the people who biuld businesses aren't due a lot of credit and wealth, it just means that they owe something back to the state that created the base conditions of their success.

Jul. 23 2012 08:28 AM

Wow, Karol, how about a little common honesty in your responses?

As of 2007, the top 1% of households owned 34.6% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19% had 50.5%, which means that 20% of the people hold 85% of our nation's wealth.

The lowest 40% of the population hold 0.3%.

If we waive taxes for people who are surviving on barely subsistence income and have close to zero accumulated wealth, that means the top 20% should be paying FAR MORE THAN the <85% they do pay.

And if Americans making $60,000 a year pay 30% of their income in taxes, people making $10,000,000 a year should not pay a lesser percentage. Mitt Romney paying 14% on the one year of tax returns he's willing to show us is a disgrace.

Jul. 22 2012 10:06 AM
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Jul. 21 2012 04:52 PM
Frank

This kind of partisan hackery shouldn't have a spot on WNYC. Listeners pay for WNYC, not the GOP. WNYC has basically become one step removed from the kind of nonsense of CNN's not-at-all missed, Counterspin.

Jul. 21 2012 03:49 PM
Karol from NYC

Alan, you write "Yes, business owners work really hard and have to be smart to be successful. We know this." Do we? It doesn't seem that Obama does. He is negating the idea that successful people work really hard and are smart. He specifies that they didn't build their own success, someone else did that. It's not right. If you believe that business owners work really hard and have to be smart to succeed then you have to take issue with what Obama said.

RUCB, It's right there in the last paragraph of what he said: "If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that."

Jul. 21 2012 10:57 AM

Karol -

BTW, the only place in your opinion where the President is quoted saying "You didn't build that" is in your HEADLINE. Either quote the man or don't quote the man but never make stuff up.

Jul. 21 2012 09:18 AM
Jack Jackson from Central New Jersey

“A campaign based on falsehood and dishonesty does not have long legs,” Romney said on “Fox and Friends"

I can only hope so because all of the misquotes, inaccurate summarizations and downright lies from Romney and his surrogates are turning off Independents.

If he runs by lying, how will he lead?

Jul. 21 2012 08:44 AM
Carolyn from Michigan

You right-wingers always look for a negative in whatever Obama says!
We all know he is NOT anit-business! He was saying it "Takes a Village" for anyone to suceed in whatever they do... someone along the line helped us get where we are.
You want to talk "grammar"? Anytime someone talks "off the cuff" the grammar can get misconstrued Try reading the many books about GW and his "Bushisms." They're a real hoot!

Jul. 21 2012 07:55 AM
Alan

Yes, business owners work really hard and have to be smart to be successful. We know this. But there are also a lot of people in the country who also work really hard and have to be really smart to get by who don't own businesses. And they are suffering.

It's a bit ridiculous to believe that Obama somehow detests small business owners. Rather than focus on mincing his words (and yes, best-selling authors can fumble over their words), take a second to actually parse his meaning. He's simply saying that business owners who become successful in America become successful not just on their own hard work and smarts, but because of the robustness of the society in which they build their business. It's a pretty simple, uncontroversial concept.

If you want to attack the notion that the very wealthy should be paying more taxes than the less well-off, go ahead. But please stop the endless word mincing.

Jul. 21 2012 02:06 AM
Mark

Obama didn't demonize anyone, attack anyone or say anything untrue. He just pointed out that in our country, we have the kind of system that encourages businesses to succeed. Well, we do. In the past conservatives would have agreed that part of the reason America has succeeded is because we have a system that makes success possible. But now, conservatives think America has nothing to do with it. Which is clueless and unpatriotic, in my view. Yes, rich people pay taxes, which helps pay for roads. But they didn't pay ALL the taxes for them, or even most of the taxes, unless you only look at the income tax and nothing else. The only class warfare I hear is coming from the imaginations of people who oppose Obama politically. Opposing Obama is fine, but making up reasons to do so shouldn't be necessary.

Jul. 20 2012 10:09 PM
amused

..I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there…

So why does Obama think some people succeed? It's not because their smart! It is not because they work hard! So what is it?

Are they lucky? Are they crooks? He does not say.

What does he say? -- They don't pay their 'fair share'!
(Even if they are not crooks, they are STILL ripping off everyone less successful than are by not paying their fair share.)
That is NOT class warfare! That is a THREAT! He will PUNISH the productive (for not paying their fair share) because they DO NOT deserve the fruits of their labor.

How can there be any question about what he said or what he meant?

This is NOT going to end well!

Jul. 20 2012 09:22 PM
Joe Salaman

Sorry I got a little off topic there and forgot to finish by saying, while I personally found Obama's remark offensive, I understand the point he was trying to make, that we need to see the big picture, and that while as individuals we can achieve varying levels of success within a given system, only by working together can we hope to change that system. He is no more the system than any of us are.

Jul. 20 2012 07:31 PM
Joe Salaman

As a self employed individual who pays his own social security and medicare entirely, which makes my taxes about double what an employed person who earns the same would pay and is about to be bankrupted by the unaffordable care act in 2014 [I have never been able to afford health insurance for my family of four who I support entirely without any government benefits], Obama's words were like a punch in the face to me. This country prides itself on being the land of opportunity where anyone with the guts and determination to try will succeed without being held back by excessive taxes and regulations. Yet having spent an equal amount of time [15 years] being self employed in both the UK and USA. I have realized that it was easier to make a living in the UK. Despite it's reputation as a socialist welfare state, there were many government programs to help people start their own business, plus I had free healthcare and no medicare to pay for just 5% more on the basic rate of income tax, [a way better deal than Obamacare]. It's no wonder just about every developed nation has socialized healthcare because it just works better when the profit is removed and it becomes affordable for all. The problem here is that the medical industry has become greedy and corrupt and downright criminal, deliberately poisoning us for profit while using the government in it's bottomless pocket to deny us the right to avoid it's poisons or use natural alternatives. America today is not a capitalist democracy, it is a fascist corpocracy, it despises the self employed individual and favours the giant corporations run by the 1% while the 99% work for them. This is the model that successive administrations have built up with the money from the corporations who fund them, citizens united proves that the supreme court is no less corrupt. Diebold corporation has ensured we cannot change anything by voting.
To all those who would tell me to love it or leave, there is nowhere to run, this is happening globally, the UK today will not be as it was 15 years ago. We must all stand together, the system will always try to divide and conquer because it always works, but let's not forget that we are the system and it cannot function without us, it is us who have let the 1% control the 99%, the police who beat the occupiers are also the 99%, if we were all protesting in the streets who would be left to beat us?

Jul. 20 2012 07:01 PM
Ivan from NYC

The only class war worth fighting is us regular citizens vs the politically connected - that is, people who did not earn what they have. And it's clear which side Obama is on.

Jul. 20 2012 05:50 PM
Karol from NYC

Jeff, yes, no man is an island, and we are helped in different ways by different people throughout our lives. Why is it that unsuccessful people, with access to the same schools and roads, don't make it? Could Obama be a little clearer on why that happens?

SKV, the idea that the superrich pay less taxes than the rest of us is plainly absurd. The idea that they don't pay their "fair share" is offensive. From the Economist (http://econ.st/NvuSmP): "According to the Tax Foundation, in 2008 "[t]he top 5 percent earned 31.7 percent of the nation's adjusted gross income, but paid approximately 58.7 percent of federal individual income taxes"." The top 10% pay 70%. What more do you want? Blood?

Jul. 20 2012 05:20 PM
Jeff Orloff from San Jose, CA

I believe he meant that successful individuals are successful because of a number of factors that go beyond one's one drive and skills. That their success also, in part, comes from an environment that helped to create the success. i.e. Good schools help produce educated citizens that are later employed and help drive a companies success. So, in this case, the school helped to play a role in the success of the company. etc.

Jul. 20 2012 04:35 PM
SKV from NYC

An "us vs. them" dynamic in a time where the super-rich possess a higher and higher proportion of our national wealth and yet pay lower tax rates than blue-collar workers seems entirely appropriate.

The Republicans think the 1% will create jobs only if we give them an even larger piece of the pie through further tax cuts.

The Democrats think when people are suffering, the wealthiest among us should pay their fair share for the common good and that the government can create jobs as well.

It may be class warfare, but Obama didn't create it. He's just trying to make sure the vast majority of us citizens don't lose that war.

Jul. 20 2012 04:13 PM

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