Are Conservatives Misrepresenting President Obama’s Remarks on Business?

A couple of days ago, I posted a blog criticizing President Obama over remarks that I perceived to be insulting toward entrepreneurs. In particular, I quoted the following excerpt from his speech: “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.” Since that time, I’ve witnessed a backlash against my post and those of other conservatives who have made similar arguments. While I don’t intend to respond to every backlash like this, I believe that the arguments being made are credible enough to merit a response in this instance.

The people castigating myself and other conservatives have made two general points, and I’ll address both in turn. First, they argue that conservatives cherry-picked a very short excerpt from the President’s speech, and that we did so with the intention of removing any and all context, thereby making his point “beyond comprehension.” In other words, they argue that conservatives maliciously made a misleading sound bite that misrepresents his point.

In my own defense, I will say that I provided a link to the president’s full remarks on the White House’s very own website. I can see from the statistics provided by WordPress that many people did follow that link to the complete speech. Furthermore, I would argue that even with the added context, President Obama still ultimately makes the same point.

In fact, I would argue that the president actually made several different and possibly contradictory points, but I’ll get back to that later on. So, I certainly don’t believe that either myself or conservatives pulled the wool over anyone’s eyes on this speech. For your convenience, however, here’s the rest of the (relevant) portion of the speech, quoted directly from the White House website:

“…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.  (Applause.)

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.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.” – President Barack Obama, July 13th, 2012.

This leads into their second point, so allow me now to move on to that. They argue that the president was just making a case for the importance of societal contributions to business. As he said, successful businessmen probably had some good teachers. If you started a trucking company, you needed roads and bridges in the first place in order to make your business model feasible.

If this is what he’s arguing, does he have a point? Yes, he has a point. A well-ordered society with an extensive infrastructure, educated workforce, and reliable governing institutions does contribute to the success of businesses. It even makes some business models (like the aforementioned trucking company) possible in the first place.

However, we shouldn’t over-exaggerate the importance of this point. There are several angles I could take with this, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on just one. As I acknowledged in my original blog post, entrepreneurs aren’t the only ones to build their businesses. Their employees play a significant role in helping to build their business after the entrepreneur comes up with the initial idea.

And here, I will certainly acknowledge that the advantages of living in a free and prosperous society set the groundwork for most entrepreneurs to build their business. I would argue that some entrepreneurs don’t require an educated workforce, or extensive infrastructure in order to build their businesses, but I’ll forgo that point since obviously many do.

However, I still believe that conservatives are making a fair and accurate point when criticizing President Obama over the statement. Let me explain. There’s a difference between society laying the groundwork for a business to be built, and an entrepreneur actually coming along to start that business. Laying the groundwork is great and should be acknowledged, but society still needs the entrepreneurs.

Society needs the people with the idea for how to create a product or provide a service that people want for a competitive price. Society can provide the roads and bridges, and the trained engineers, and the stable system of government, and everything else, but without a Steve Jobs to create a product or service to use all of these tools, there’s no business to be built in the first place. The tools go to waste.

The president is saying that the entrepreneur owes society a debt for providing him with those tools, and to a certain extent that’s true. But President Obama is also drastically minimizing the importance of that entrepreneur in the first place. He’s reversing the whole framework. It’s not the entrepreneur who has the vision for the business. As the president said, “…you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

In other words, society made the business “happen” and built it up. The entrepreneur apparently just came along at the right time and took the credit. It’s unclear what exactly the entrepreneur’s role in the business is under President Obama’s framework.

This leads me to an argument that I alluded to earlier: President Obama is making several different and contradictory points in the section of the speech that I quoted. Scroll back up to the last sentence, and then compare the argument he’s making there to the controversial pair of sentences that so many conservatives have been calling attention to. Do the two sentences fit together? They don’t.

With that last sentence, the president is making a fair and truthful argument. Most business successes are the result of individual initiative (entrepreneurs) putting the tools that society provides to their best possible use. But, that contradicts his earlier argument: “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.”

That argument envisions no role for the entrepreneur who started and owns their business. They didn’t “build” it and somebody else “made” it happen. If you neither make nor build up something, what claim do you really have to it? None. And that’s why conservatives believe entrepreneurs should feel insulted by the president’s words.

As far as I can tell, the backlash and complaints come from what amounts to a misunderstanding. Conservatives are trying to draw attention to one point made by the president, while those in the backlash are trying to draw attention to another point he’s making. The fact that the two points don’t mesh with one another just makes it even more confusing.

As I said in the first post, President Obama is a very smart man, and he means what he says. However, in this case, he contradicted himself. Those who support the president are obviously inclined to believe that President Obama didn’t really mean those off-the-cuff remarks, and that we should ignore them and focus on the prepared speech.

Conservatives, myself included, believe that the president did mean what he said with those remarks, particularly in the context of his political stances, and therefore we put significantly less stock in his prepared rhetoric. Again, it’s up to you to determine which of the arguments he actually believes in.

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About Daniel Anderson

I am a 21 year old Michigan native completing the final year of my undergraduate education at Hillsdale College. I tend to categorize my political philosophy as "constitutional conservatism." I also advocate free-market economics.
This entry was posted in Campaigns, Economics, Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Are Conservatives Misrepresenting President Obama’s Remarks on Business?

  1. gracie says:

    * It’s not the entrepreneur who has the vision for the business. As the president said, “…you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”*

    Sorry, I still disagree with that interpretation. It all hinges upon what the pronoun “that” is referring to here: “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

    It’s clear from the longer except what “that” refers to. “That” refers to roads, bridges, the internet, etc. It does not refer to the entrepreneur’s vision for his business.

    If you remember far enough back to grammar school English lessons, try diagramming the sentences. It helps to identify the antecedent references to the pronouns.

    • Ed says:

      Gracie, when I think back to grammar school English lessons, one thing I remember getting hammered into my brain is the problem you face when the “intended antecedent” does not immediately preceed the pronoun. In the passage you cite, you could argue that the “intended antecedent” should be “roads and bridges” but that phrase did not immediately preceed the pronoun, but “business” did. Pronouns should refer to the most recent noun, not something further back, or else you confuse the reader (which, assuming your interpretation is correct, the rest of us were confused).

      Further, “that” is typically a singular pronoun, referring to a singular noun. If what you’re saying is correct, he should have used the pronoun “those” or “them” to refer to “roads and bridges” (not “internet” by the way, which comes later).

      The Left loves to tout Obama’s speaking ability, but if he were an effective communicator, he would not allow for confusion or misinterpretation of his argument, which leaves him open to legitimate criticism from the Right.

      • gracie says:

        As both a retired English teacher and book editor, I agree with you here. Our “spoken speech ” tends to be much sloppier than our written speech, which is why campaign aides for all candidates are forever issuing “clarifications” for muddled statements.

  2. Lee Weishar says:

    I think the main thing to argue is what was being inferred by his statements, and not the grammar. The president was implying that entrepreneurs grow like a charity, through the help of consumers and employees. It’s like he is saying that what the entrepreneur owes everything to society. He doesn’t mention that the entrepreneur is there to serve society. If the business gets customers, it’s not because the consumer felt charitable toward the business, but because he got something he wanted in return. The entrepreneur is already serving society by being a successful entrepreneur. He is not successful because of what society provides.

  3. jimony says:

    “It’s clear from the longer except what “that” refers to. “That” refers to roads, bridges, the internet, etc. It does not refer to the entrepreneur’s vision for his business.” — Gracie.
    It is definitely NOT clear that he was referring to roads, bridges, the internet, etc. You really have to take the sentence out of context from the rest of the speach to make that point. The context of the speach was the success of the business and how the business owners somehow had an “upper hand” over those who do not have a successful business. What was clear was that he was alluding to the idea that successful people do not deserve their success but owe everyone else everything they gained from their success, which makes it ‘right’ to take a bigger “fair share” from them than from those that haven’t succeeded.

    • Ed says:

      In fairness, I listened to the full audio yesterday, and it seems he intended to refer to “roads and bridges” and not the business itself, when he said, “you didn’t build that.”

      That said, I think the bigger picture that Dan Anderson and other Conservatives have espoused is that the President villifies entrepreneurs – thinks they’re greedy for making a profit, greedy for sending jobs overseas, greedy for laying off workers (or not hiring more). What the President misses is that – for every successful business venture there are as many as 10 failed ventures. Remember the famous sock-puppet on the Super Bowl ads ?

      The point is, there are winners and losers in business, so when someone risks their own capital, they deserve every penny of profit that comes their way, because if they fail, they lose everything. This goes for entrepreneurs with the inspiration, as well as venture capitalists who provide the financing to turn a dream into a product.

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