Critics twisting president’s words on ‘you didn’t build that’

Six months ago, in the heat of the Republican primary campaign, we rose to the defense of Mitt Romney when his rivals jumped all over him for saying “I like being able to fire people” at a Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce breakfast.

Did he say those exact words? Yes.

But they were delivered in the context of dealing with health insurance and other service providers that don’t live up to expectations.

Today, we extend the same courtesy to President Barack Obama, who is being excoriated for stringing these words together during a July 13 campaign stop in Roanoke, Va: “If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Did he say those exact words? Yes.

But a review of the video and the relevant 335 words of text from his 42-minute address make it clear – to us and to several reputable fact-checking organizations – that those words are being twisted out of context for political expediency.

On Wednesday, Concord and Rochester were among 24 communities in 12 states that hosted Republican-staged “We Did Build This” events, which featured small-business owners taking personal affront to the president’s statement.

(Ironically, many were held at businesses – including Secure Care Products in Concord – that have received thousands of dollars from contracts with the federal government.)

So now that we know what his critics want you to think, here are those 14 words placed in the proper context:

“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.”

And later: “The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”

When viewed in the proper context, then, Obama seems to be saying even successful businessmen and women have had some help along the way. And the “that” in “you didn’t build that” refers to “roads and bridges,” not someone’s business.

Now, as journalists who believe words matter, we readily admit the president’s choice of words were, to be kind, imprecise. But verbal sloppiness doesn’t negate the intended meaning of the words when viewed in the proper context.

Collectively, what makes the Romney and Obama distortions so effective is that they feed a narrative each side so desperately wants to drape upon their opponent prior to Election Day.

In Romney’s case, his “I like being able to fire people” comment conjures up images of a cold-hearted, ruthless businessman. For Obama, his statement feeds the perception that he has no clue how American business works.

Presidential politics is a rough-and-tumble sport. We know it. You know it.

But every time campaign strategists succeed in distracting us with phony, hot-button issues such as these, our attention is diverted from the only question that should matter:

Who is best qualified to lead this nation for the next four years and specifically how would he go about doing it?

Everything else is noise.