There are certain phrases which come to define whole candidates, nay, whole presidential election cycles. Take, for instance, John Kerry’s 2004 gaffe where he claimed that he “actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it,” and George H.W. Bush’s “read my lips, no new taxes,” and even, to a lesser extent, “I never had sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.” These one liners are accessible to the average American voter, reinforce questions that many voters may have already, and usually work toward setting the tone for the American electorate’s view of the candidate who uttered them, just as the average voters are beginning to pay attention to the national election. These lines can be seized on by the opposing campaign and hanged around the candidate’s neck, turning a seemingly innocuous moment into an albatross for the campaign.
Barack Obama may have just had his moment.
Obama was in Roanoke, Virginia last week and, now famously, said that “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
Hold the phone! If three and a half years of socialist epitaphs and accusations that Obama was an amateur who was in over his head (and Obama’s own class warfare schtick) didn’t do the trick in convincing America that Obama is an anti-capitalist, tax-hiking, class warfare bandying neophyte, leave it to President Obama to package everyone’s worst fears about him in a nice, neat package–perfect for a 30 second ad–or fifty 30 second ads, more likely.
Now, before we start to feel bad for Obama, it’s not like Obama had not tried to similarly caricature Mitt Romney when he was quoted saying “I like being able to fire people.” The Obama campaign bludgeoned Romney for a few weeks about his quote, but failed to get much traction. Probably because the quote was taken grossly out of context, as Romney had prefaced his remarks by saying “You know, if someone doesn’t give me a good service that I need, I want to say, ‘I’m going to go get someone else to provide that service to me.'”
No such contextual mistake exists with the Obama quote. The campaign recently tried to recast the remarks as a “gaffe”, and simultaneously as remarks that were taken out of context. This will not fool anyone. Everyone knows a gaffe is saying something like “I’ve now been to 57 states–I think one left to go.” A gaffe is not something that you meant but regret saying later. Secondly, here is the full context of the Obama quote:
“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.”
This collectivist shibboleth is unmistakably Bolshevik in its nature, and echoes the statement some months earlier by leftist Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate.”
Sound familiar? These aren’t mistakes, in the sense that they are misunderstood–this is what these people think. Unfortunately for Obama, he made the calculated error of believing that this rhetoric will find resonance among the average American, and made it clear in the form of a sound-byte. A sound byte that serves to bolster the president’s detractors and leave his apologists weaving a long and verbose net designed to cushion Obama after his high-wire stumble.
In the days following the president’s slip, the president has seen his poll numbers drop. A Rasmussen poll from today found that the president trailed Romney 49% to 44% among likely voters, compared to a 47% to 46% lead that Obama held prior to his remarks.
This remark does not appear to me to be the type that will go away, as Obama has no way of satisfactorily explaining away its meaning as the semi-astute electorate begins to pay attention in the next few months–perhaps in another election cycle, Obama’s 2008 “spreading the wealth” remarks to Joe the Plummer would have had a similar impact, but look for this catchphrase to trip up candidate Obama straight through to November. When all is said and done, the phrase we all may remember as the defining line of the entire election may not be from any of the debates, but may be from a stump speech in Roanoke, Virginia.
David Teesdale is back, baby.