The flap over President Barack Obama’s “you didn’t build that” gaffe — playing endlessly in TV ads and sure to be a major theme of the Republican National Convention in late August — is at once sillier and more significant than it seems.
It’s sillier because fair-minded observers — including neutral fact-checking referees — agree that the president’s words are shamelessly being taken out of context. For Romney to base so much of his campaign on bogus editing is lame.
Yet the uproar is significant because — properly framed — this election offers a stark choice between do-it-yourself libertarianism and Whig capitalism, between Ayn Rand and Warren Buffett.
Here’s what the president actually said in Roanoke, Virginia, on July 13:
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.
Obama’s awkward “that” referred to “roads and bridges,” not businesses. But the president wasn’t at his best that day, to put it mildly. He needed to match his point about collaborative success with paeans to those he saluted in his inaugural address (and in many other speeches) as “the risk takers, the doers, the makers of things.” His failure to bring business executives into his White House and use them as surrogates means he has to handle damage control on his own, which looks bad.