Column: Digging a hole with 'that'
SAN DIEGO -- If an elected official with a reputation as a skilled communicator is still trying to clarify remarks that he made two weeks ago, there's a problem.
President Obama is learning this lesson the hard way as he tries to explain away a controversy that revolves around four simple words: "You didn't build that."
Emphasis on "that." There would be no controversy if we could establish without a doubt exactly what Obama meant by "that."
This story should have died out by now. But both sides are keeping it alive. Supporters of Mitt Romney are using Obama's July 13 Roanoke, Va., remarks about American business as a chew toy because they claim the comments illustrate that the president doesn't have the foggiest idea how much effort and sacrifice it takes to launch a successful small business. Defenders of Obama are using the remarks -- and the Republican response to them -- to raise contributions from donors because they claim the whole hullabaloo shows that electing Romney would mean politics as usual, and lead to funding cuts in the public infrastructure that helps small businesses succeed.
Here's what Obama said:
"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."
So what does "that" mean? Was Obama talking about roads and bridges, or was he talking about a business? You have to stretch pretty far to make a credible argument it was the former. The president was obviously referring to a business. Read the statement again. Do you really believe the antecedent of "that" is way back in the previous sentence? Obama was making the case that anyone who is successful owes at least part of that success to the efforts and sacrifices of others. It's a fair point, but he made it clumsily.
A few days ago, at a fundraiser in Oakland, Calif., Obama chose his words more carefully when he attacked Romney for "knowingly twisting my words around to suggest that I don't value small businesses" and engaging in political spin.
"I understand these are the games that get played in political campaigns," Obama told the crowd. "Although when folks omit entire sentences of what you said -- they start splicing and dicing -- you may have gone a little over the edge." He also said he believed "with all my heart that it is the drive and the ingenuity of Americans who start businesses that lead to their success."
But rather than get caught in the endless loop of debating whether Obama's initial remarks were clear or taken out of context, and trying to make heads or tails out of the words of a president who will say one thing and later say the opposite, we need to focus on what is really important about the speech in Roanoke.
It's the reaction of the audience. Watch the tape, and you'll see. It was loud applause. They loved hearing that those who are successful shouldn't go around claiming credit for doing it on their own. Outside that room, Obama's remarks fell flat. But in front of the crowd, they were a home run.
This is not good news. When Americans see someone else succeeding, we have a choice about how to behave. We can react with jealousy and tell ourselves that he doesn't deserve his good fortune. Or we can be happy for him and learn from his example so that we might one day be just as successful. By trying to put the achievers in their place, Obama was pandering to the first group. And the message was warmly received.
If the audience in Roanoke is in any way representative of Obama's supporters, the Democratic Party is in bad shape. A century ago, this was the party of labor and working-class dreams. Now it's the party of envy and pettiness. It's not where you go to be challenged or pushed. It's where you go if you want to be told that it's not your fault that you're not as successful as the next guy.
That's a sickness. The president should be trying to cure it. Instead, he is enabling it.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.