How "You didn't build that" became "He didn't say that"


What do you do when everybody's claiming your president said something, and you just know he didn't really say it, but all the video and all the audio and all the transcripts show that he did say it? 

This is the dilemma faced by supporters of President Obama in the long wake of last week's "You didn't build that" speech.

The president's opponents are making a big fuss over comments that are on their face contemptuous of individual merit and out of step with American popular opinion.

The president's supporters have a multipronged counterargument: Either he didn't make those comments or they were taken out of context or even if they are in context they don't matter because we should be reading between the lines. 

Here is the paragraph in which Obama calls out successful entrepreneurs

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 Internet didn't get invented on its own.  Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. 

That last line is pretty good evidence that Obama was still running with the Choom Gang in the 1990s, because he doesn't seem to have noticed that Al Gore walked into years of mockery over his expansive claims about the invention of the worldwide cybertubes. But let's not read between the lines. Obama's comment, in context and out of context, is stunningly ill-advised for a president sitting on the worst economy since World War II.

But at TPM, David Taintor calls "You didn't build that" a "canard" that was cooked up by rightwing bloggers and belatedly adopted by Mitt Romney's campaign: 

Friday evening, it was a paragraph in President Obama's speech at Roanoke Fire Station #1 in Virginia. By Tuesday, it was a full-fledged fundraising line for the Romney campaign.

But that wasn't because the Romney campaign's opposition research shop immediately seized on the president's remarks. In fact, it would be three-and-a-half days before the Romney campaign itself made any mention of them. In the interim, what transpired was a textbook case of how a distortion can emerge from right-wing online media, get laundered by Fox News, and go mainstream as a major line of attack by the Republican nominee for President.

Reason alumnus Dave Weigel says the real culprit is the president's rambling, and he speculates about missing clauses: 

It's a rough-hewn clone of Elizabeth Warren's famed YouTube spiel about how business owners owed much to infrastructure and regulators. But this version is a bit of a ramble, [and] you can tell, because Obama never repeated this riff. And the looseness suggests that Obama left out a sentence or a clause. "Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business—you didn't build that." Did he mean that you, small businessman, didn't build the roads and bridges? And if he didn't, is it politically offensive to suggest that businesses are built by more than sweat, blood, and John Galt quotes? Maybe, and yes.

I remain in awe of Dave's dogged and enterprising journalism, but I don't believe he can "tell" when the president is saying one thing but apparently meaning something else. I'm also not clear on what Dave's getting at by selectively boldfacing the sentences "Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business—you didn't build that." You could just as easily prove the opposite by boldfacing "If you've got a business—you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen." Either way, there's no prettying up these lines. Exactly who is playing context games here? 

A commenter on Emily Ekins' post last night goes even further, condemning the "intellectual dishonesty it takes to believe that's what he said." So I'll bite: What should we believe he said, other than what he in fact said? 

The popularization of Derridaian post-modernism since the 1990s has generally been a lot of fun, turning mainstream Americans into sharp observers of signs and meaning who are sure that either there's nothing outside the text or everything is outside the text or both. But at some point it helps to look at that thing above the subtext, which is generally known as "the text." Up to this point the presidential election has been Obama vs. Obama Junior. With "You didn't build that," which his campaign has made no effort to clarify or redirect, the president has drawn a line in the sand.

There is no nebulousness here. Beyond the paragraph quoted above, Obama calls government spending "the investments that grow our economy." He ridicules the tendency of Americans to brag about being hard workers with a variant of "So's your old man." ("Let me tell you something—there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.") He instinctively names "a great teacher" when looking for somebody to credit for causing success in the working world. The president has boldly presented his view on how an economy works. His supporters should give him the respect of taking his words seriously.