What Did Obama Actually Say?

Andrew Sullivan —  Jul 19 2012 @ 10:52am

It has already become a cause celebre on the right. So it's worth revisiting exactly what president Obama said in Roanoke that has caused Charles Murray disgustingly to label the president un-American. Bear with the long quote, but context matters. The words in italics were removed in Romney's latest ad (above) exploiting this:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back.  They know they didn’t — 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.

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.  There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own.  I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service.  That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

I don't think that passage is un-American. And call me crazy (and they do) but when a speaker summarizes his argument with the phrase, "The point is …", I tend to think that's a good way to interpret what he just said. So here is what Obama was saying: "We succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together." Not exactly radical. I also think that the president was referring to infrastructure when he said "you didn't build that …" The phrase comes immediately after the sentence removed by Romney, which includes the obvious referent: "Somebody invested in roads and bridges." That's an utterly banal point and impossible to refute. Which is why the Romneyites removed the sentence before the sentence they are focusing on.

Here is Romney on this speech: "Obama attacks success."

Here is Obama's speech:

At the heart of this country, its central idea is the idea that in this country, if you’re willing to work hard, if you’re willing to take responsibility, you can make it if you try.   That you can find a job that supports a family and find a home you can make your own; that you won’t go bankrupt when you get sick.  That maybe you can take a little vacation with your family once in a while — nothing fancy, but just time to spend with those you love.  Maybe see the country a little bit, maybe come down to Roanoke.  That your kids can get a great education, and if they’re willing to work hard, then they can achieve things that you wouldn’t have even imagined achieving.  And then you can maybe retire with some dignity and some respect, and be part of a community and give something back. That’s the idea of America.  It doesn’t matter what you look like.  It doesn’t matter where you come from.  It doesn’t matter what your last name is.  You can live out the American Dream.  That’s what binds us all together.

"Living out the American Dream" is now, according to Charles Murray, "un-American." Obama needs to be more careful. This is the second gift he has given to the Romneyites by off-the-cuff rhetoric which can be taken out of context, then metastasized to become the alleged argument of the campaign. But that Romney is being deceptive here is pretty obvious. He's distorting words to imply that Obama hates business and achievement and enterprise in such a way that he is un-American. Yes, Newt was right.