Context is still king


Back in November, President Obama told business leaders at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit that U.S. policymakers have been “a little bit lazy” when it comes to attracting businesses to American soil. Republicans spent a week attacking the president, saying he was calling Americans “lazy.” They simply ignored the context.

It’s a bad habit, and this week, as my estimable colleague Kent Jones dutifully noted yesterday, it’s happening again. For the record, here’s the speech the president delivered over the weekend in Roanoke, Virginia.

Towards the end of the speech, echoing a sentiment Elizabeth Warren articulated quite well last year, Obama stressed the way in which American society helps people prosper.

“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…. We say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for President – because I still believe in that idea. You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.”

Fox News took the quote, carefully edited out the context, and soon after, Republicans decided they had a new talking point on their hands. Paul Ryan, the right-wing chairman of the House Budget Committee, helped lead the way.

A conservative writer ran this item last night.

It was Rep. Paul Ryan’s wife, Janna, who first saw – via Twitter – President Obama’s recent comments about American entrepreneurs, that “if you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

And the Wisconsin Republican – thought to be on Mitt Romney’s running-mate short list – couldn’t believe it. He thought someone must “have been putting words in the president’s mouth.”

But Obama said it all.

Well, no, actually he didn’t. Ryan argued that Obama “slipped” and accidentally mentioned his radical leftist ideology, but that only makes sense if you deliberately feign ignorance and ignore the context.

And that’s precisely what Ryan, Rush Limbaugh, Fox, and a motley crew of activists are doing to manufacture outrage where none should exist.

As Jonathan Bernstein explained, “By ‘you didn’t build that,’ Obama clearly means business-people didn’t build ‘the unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.’”

Perhaps this concept is too sophisticated for the president’s critics; perhaps they understand it well but are hoping their hysterics will distract from Mitt Romney’s recent troubles.

Either way, this is just cheap. There’s nothing even controversial about the concept of Americans relying on public institutions and one another for success. If you start a business, you rely on the police to protect it if someone tries to break in; you rely on public schools to provide you with capable employees; you rely on public roads to move goods and services; you rely on the Internet; etc.

That’s obviously what the president was talking about. If the right disagrees with the observation, fine, let’s have the debate. But to pretend Obama said something he didn’t by way of selective editing is kind of pathetic.

Paul Ryan and Barack Obama

Context is still king