The fight over the content and context of President Barack Obama’s campaign speech in Roanoke has become part of the national narrative of the presidential election, and Republicans were doing all they could today to keep the conflict going in Virginia and other battleground states.
Republicans have seized on two sentences from Obama’s July 13 speech at Historic Fire Station No. 1 and are using them to portray the president as demonizing business owners. They kept up the attack Wednesday, staging news conferences in Roanoke and Richmond and 22 other locations in 11 other states to play up the issue.
Obama’s campaign and the president himself have said that Romney has taken the remarks out of context and has ignored the underlying message of the Roanoke speech.
The key point of attack was a line in Obama’s speech in which he stated, “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
Republicans pounced on the comment, arguing that it reflects Obama’s hostile attitude toward the business world.
Numerous non-partisan fact-checkers have argued the line was taken out of context: When Obama said “you didn’t build that,” he was talking about roads, bridges and other infrastructure that businesses use on a daily basis.
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help,” Obama said in his Roanoke stump speech. “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.”
A few sentences later, Obama said: “The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”
Despite that, the “you didn’t build that” line made its way into Romney campaign ads, apparently generating enough response that Obama was obliged to respond directly in a television ad of his own.
“Those ads taking my words about small business out of context? They’re flat out wrong,” Obama said in a 30-second ad released Tuesday. “Of course Americans build their own businesses.”
Gov. Bob McDonnell, a top national surrogate for Romney, disputed assertions that Republicans are twisting the meaning of Obama’s remarks.
“It’s not out of context, it’s out of touch,” McDonnell said in an appearance at a Richmond office products business. “That’s what’s wrong with his comments. It’s not just his words; it’s the repeated policies. “
In Roanoke, Pete Snyder, the director of the GOP’s coordinated Virginia campaign, and state Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County, stood before a campaign banner for Republican Mitt Romney bearing the phrase “We Did Build It!” and condemned the president’s remarks about businesses.
But Head, who owns Home Instead Senior Care, said he’s disturbed by the underlying thrust of the speech.
“It’s really an exposure, an opportunity to see that our president doesn’t know what it means to build a business,” Head said. “He doesn’t understand anything about it. And really, how could he? He’s never done it. I have.”
But what about the line Obama uttered after the “you didn’t build that” comment, when he said, “when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together?”
Asked if he agreed with that line from Obama’s speech, Head said, “If you take that line by itself out of context, absolutely I agree with it. But if you take it in the framework of what was said, the real point of it is he doesn’t understand, because he talked about — wrapped on both sides of that comment — the infrastructure that government provided. The viewpoint is for him that government provides everything. The reality is that government doesn’t get anything that we don’t give to them.”
Head said that he and his wife Betsy purchased Home Instead Senior Care as a franchise and sweated to grow it from a start-up with 12 caregivers to its current size, with 19 administrative staffers and more than 300 caregivers.
“Building it yourself means that on the weekends, when no one would be answering the phones, and we would have an opportunity to get a new client, none of our competitors would be answering the phones, and our phones would be forwarded to a cell phone,” Head said. “It means doing as I have done more than once, coming out of the shower with soap in my hair, standing absolutely naked in my bathroom, trying to sound as professional as I possibly could, talking to a prospective client seeing if I could help them to meet the needs that they would have in taking care of their elderly loved ones.”
Head did shake his head at the wave of negative ads from both sides that have saturated western Virginia television stations. But he said Obama’s remarks should get voters’ attention.
“Going forward, I would hope that what this would begin to do is get voters to pay attention to the underlying ideology of the candidates and not listening to sound bites and fluff, but really listening to the substance of the message,” Head said.
In response, state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, said that Obama’s remarks, when taken in context, were right on.
“Romney’s distorting what the president said,” Edwards said. “I was there. He was simply talking about that we’re all in this together, that all of us who succeed have had help at some time in their life, whether it be family, teachers, government programs or what not.”
– Mason Adams and Michael Sluss