WASHINGTON – Mitt Romney says Barack Obama doesn't think entrepreneurs built their businesses. The problem is that's not what the president said.
The brouhaha over Obama's comments on businesses shows no sign of fading. Romney continues to hammer Obama over comments taken wildly out of context and Romney's allies are pummeling the president as a government-obsessed figure who thinks Washington is to credit for small-business success. The president's team, recognizing the potency of the issue, is pushing back hard against Romney's claims in the hope they haven't yet taken hold as fact.
“This is an ideology which says, 'Hey, we're all the same here, we ought to take from all and give to one another and that achievement, individual initiative and risk-taking and success are not to be rewarded as they have in the past,”' Romney said Monday on CNBC, continuing his line of attack that, if it were true, would give voters pause. “It's a very strange and in some respects foreign to the American experience type of philosophy.”
That was not Obama's point when he spoke in Virginia on July 13 about the government's supportive role in providing a stable environment in which businesses can thrive. Nor was it Romney's point when he used similar phrasing in 2002 about Olympic athletes who benefited from supportive parents and coaches.
But in a campaign that makes facts secondary to a good attack, the context doesn't seem to matter.
“Look, if you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own. You didn't get there on your own,” Obama said. “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.”
Obama cited teachers and mentors who helped “create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges.”
Then, Obama teed up the line that left Republicans giddy. “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 said, returning to his thesis.
“The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”
Romney and his allies pounced on the “you didn't build that” portion and ignored the rest.
“I cannot believe the president of the United States could say that I have not made this,” one small-business owner says in a web video released Tuesday by American Crossroads, an independent group supporting Romney's campaign.
“When President Obama said in Roanoke that `if you've got a business you didn't build that, somebody else made that happen,' I was personally extremely insulted,” office supplier Melissa Ball of Richmond, Va., said on a Republican Party conference call with reporters.
Recognizing the potency of this theme, the Obama campaign began pushing back harder. The campaign announced it would roll out an ad with the president speaking into the camera and addressing the hullabaloo.
“It was important to us to ensure that people know where the president is coming from ... how much he supports small-business owners and entrepreneurs,” campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters traveling with Obama on the West Coast.
During a raucous, 1,000-person campaign fundraiser a day earlier in Oakland, Calif., Obama said Romney was “knowingly twisting my words around.”
“I understand these are the games that get played in political campaigns,” Obama said. “Although when folks just omit entire sentences of what you said, they start kind of splicing and dicing, you may have gone a little over the edge there.”
The Obama campaign also released web videos Monday and Tuesday rebutting Romney's assertions.
In one, the campaign accused the presumptive GOP nominee of having “deliberately altered the meaning of the president's words.” A second video out Tuesday featured deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter, who said Romney was “not telling the truth about what the president said.”
Taken as a whole, Obama's remarks aren't that different from Romney's comments in 2002 to Olympic athletes.
“You Olympians, however, know you didn't get here solely on your own power,” Romney said after congratulating the athletes. “For most of you, loving parents, sisters or brothers, encouraged your hopes, coaches guided, communities built venues in order to organize competitions. All Olympians stand on the shoulders of those who lifted them.”
Romney's team didn't seem to mind the risk. The backdrop for his campaign stop Monday in California: a blue banner that said, “We Did Build It!”
Associated Press writers Julie Pace in Oakland, Calif., and Thomas Beaumont in Reno, Nev., contributed to this report.