I just read the best thing I’ve read so far on Obama’s now-famous line, “You didn’t build that.” It’s by Rachael Larimore, the managing editor of Slate. I recommend that you read the whole thing. I think she’s put her finger on what people heard and I would go further and say that, although the most-extreme negative interpretations of Obama’s statement are wrong, what Ms. Larimore says they heard is pretty much what Obama meant. An excerpt:

In the case of Obama’s Roanoke speech, conservatives [and most libertarians, I would add] everywhere heard, “You don’t get credit for your hard work.” I agree with the Washington Post for giving the Romney campaign four Pinocchios for repeating the truncated quote ad nauseam. I wish Romney’s team would use the full version. Because even in its full glory, it would inspire largely the same reaction. The sentiment resonates with small-business owners–and it’s small-business owners who have been most vocal in their response to Obama’s comments, from the co-owner of an Iowa deli who good-naturedly catered an Obama campaign stop in a T-shirt saying, “Government didn’t build my business” to the hardware store owner who was a bit less gracious.

Conservatives suspect that President Obama sees government as the solution to everything. [DRH: You think?] Only someone who thinks government is the answer would describe a stimulus program that cost at least $185,000 per job as successful. I can’t think of a starker difference between the liberal and conservative worldviews than the Life of Julia slide show. Liberals look at that video and see a woman aided by a social safety net. Conservatives look at it and are creeped out by the fact that liberals think the very-capable-seeming Julia can’t do anything without government help.

That same sentiment comes through in the “You Didn’t Build That” speech. Obama’s words contain an undertone that business owners are selfish, that they are ungrateful toward those teachers who helped them along the way. And that is where Obama’s misunderstanding of small business, real or perceived, shines through.


Do politicians not understand when they are patting themselves on the back for raising [the] minimum wage that somewhere, some shop owner is reaching for the ulcer medication while he weighs whether to raise prices, cut back employee hours, or rethink his hours of operation?

Ms. Larimore closes with:

By Friday morning, crews will be tearing down the GOP convention stage and those crazy screens and banners that hung throughout the Tampa Bay Times Forum. We’ll have forgotten “We Can Change That” and “We Believe in America.” But every day for the next two months, business owners will pull on T-shirts and hang signs on their stores that say “I Built This.” Go ahead, try telling them what their president “meant.”

Commenter John Donnelly recommends that we look at this site. I did so and commented below. What I want to add here, though, is that I found this paragraph in the piece he recommends shocking. The author writes:

Now, if you’ve got a basic understanding of the English language, you can see that the word “that” there doesn’t refer to “business”-it refers to “roads and bridges” in the previous sentence. If you can’t see that, you really shouldn’t be in the word business.

This is after quoting a sentence in which one would naturally think “that” refers to “business.” With a basic understanding of the English language one would expect, if Obama meant to refer to “roads and bridges,” he would have used “those,” not “that.” As I said in my original post in July, I cut Obama some slack. I often make such grammatical mistakes when I’m speaking, especially when I’m passionate, as he was. So it’s not a slam-dunk to say that “that” refers to “business.” What is shocking, however, is for the author to say that someone with “a basic understanding of the English language” who is “in the word business” would know that “that” refers to “roads and bridges.” It’s precisely an understanding of the English language by those “in the word business” that would lead one to the opposite conclusion: that “that” refers to “business.”