It Takes a Government: Ideology Gaffe or Grammar Goof?

(Article first published as It Takes a Government: Ideology Gaffe or Grammar Goof? on Blogcritics.) Many describe it as the biggest ideology gaffe of this election year. The speaker says, in essence, that it was merely a grammar goof. Either way, it was a gift to Mitt Romney that, at least temporarily, takes the heat off his tax return dust-up. The mistake, because it certainly was that, was President Obama’s announcement to small business owners, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

The words were part of a speech Obama gave in Roanoke, Virginia on July 13. Since then, he’s been hit by a non-stop barrage of criticism from those who understand the sentences as crediting government with building the private sector.  Small business owners are insulted by the President’s assertion that the Government gave them their businesses. Reeling from the negative reactions, Obama claimed seven days later that the “that” which small business owners didn’t build was roads and bridges.

Obama’s claim has done nothing to quell the controversy. In context, his disputed words are:

“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 companies could make money off the Internet.”

The claim that, like the Internet, the Government created small businesses so people could make money off of them angers voters. But, is the anger misplaced? Is it really just a case of grammar errors? And knuckle-wrapping bad grammar it is. “a business” and “that” are singular. Roads and bridges are plural. So “you didn’t build that” necessarily refers to “a business”. Otherwise, the President would have said, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build those”.

On the other hand, the “you didn’t build that” phrase is grammatically incorrect even in its obvious meaning. Specifically, the word “that” in the sentence is a declarative article, which is only used properly to refer to a specific noun. Declarative articles are not used to reference general nouns, such as “a business”.

And that may be the biggest argument in favor of the President’s insistence that his words are misunderstood. His speeches are replete with grammatical errors. Dropping the ending g’s off of gerunds is a particular favorite of his. Another is using slang contractions such as ‘gonna’ for “going to”.  These improper usages are affectations. Obama thinks they make him sound like a man of the (to him, grammatically challenged) masses and, hence, more credible.

As alluring as the grammar goof excuse appears, it doesn’t pass the laugh test for two reasons. The entire context of that section of the President’s speech contradicts his claim of grammatical error only. His consistent message of the last four years undermines it as well.

Obama’s contested statements were part of his justification for increasing taxes on the rich. They were made toward the end of a 40-minute monologue given to a very receptive audience. Apparently, he was inspired by the recurring cheers and applause to state frankly the ideological underpinning of his economic thesis: the Government creates private success.

A couple of paragraphs earlier in the speech, Obama stated, in referring to the Clinton tax increases:

“And, by the way, we’ve tried that before — a guy named Bill Clinton did it. We created 23 million new jobs, turned a deficit into a surplus, and rich people did just fine. We created a lot of millionaires (emphasis supplied).”

After crediting the government with private wealth creation, Obama went on to chastise successful business owners on two counts. According to him, they believe, and wrongly so, that they are smarter and harder working than other Americans. The President stated further that only two factors drive private business success, the government and the initiative of those who choose to own businesses.

Obama would not be more incorrect if he had stated a belief in an earth-centric universe. If success in business only requires the government and personal initiative, the failure rate of small businesses would be virtually zero. Instead, even in non-recession years half of the people who start their own businesses fail. The main reason is mismanagement. Owners can have all of the initiative in the world, but the doors will close anyway if they can’t manage money, people, resources and time.

While competent management skills are necessary to succeed they are not enough. Small business owners must be willing to risk personal financial disaster and work like they’re indentured to the venture because they are. The small business owner, tiny actually, in our pack was typical of the breed. During the fiscal year, our pack member and a co-owner paid their people first taking only a monthly stipend for themselves. At the end of the year, employees were bonused according to the business’s profitability and their relative contributions. After that, money was put back into the company to fund the next year’s growth. Only then did the two owners take their bonuses, which typically were less than those of some of the employees.

As for the level of effort required to sustain the business, these owners worked 80 – 100 hour weeks for years. They looked forward to weekends, not because they got time off, but because they could work productive 16-hour days without phones ringing or email beckoning. Business travel was always either on Sunday nights or weeknights after putting in a full day at the office. They missed birthdays, anniversaries, family gatherings, parties and so many other social functions that they lost count. Ultimately, they sold the business and made sure that their employees kept their jobs with the new owner.

Make no mistake. These two people are not special. They are just like millions of other small business owners. These folks do work harder than most. They have to put in the time or the venture fails.  They take care of their employees first. They risk their personal finances. They make life choices that others wouldn’t even consider. They do not deserve the derisive scorn heaped on them by the current occupant of the White House. They don’t have time to think of themselves as smarter or harder working. They’re too busy striving to succeed.

The President’s denial of the personal risks taken, the extraordinary effort expended and the sacrifices made to succeed in business is shameful. Equally wrong is his claim of a government-centric economy. His roads and bridges example is, simply put, ass-backwards. The government is a facilitator of commerce not a creator of wealth. It did not provide infrastructure from which commerce then flowed. Commerce, or business, came first and thrived. As a result, taxpayers demanded the use of their dollars to facilitate its expansion across state boundaries. In our democracy, government is the servant of the people, not the master.

But, Obama’s upside down view of the role of government is necessary to justify his wealth redistribution agenda. If the government creates wealth, the government can dictate how it is spent. He has advocated redistributing the wealth since at least his much-publicized conversation with Joe the Plumber on the 2008 campaign trail. On that occasion, the President-to-be stated, “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”

A little later in his conversation with Joe, Obama gave his justification for wealth redistribution:

“The only thing that changes, is I’m gonna cut taxes a little bit more for the folks who are most in need and for the 5% of the folks who are doing very well – even though they’ve been working hard and I appreciate that – I just want to make sure they’re paying a little bit more in order to pay for those other tax cuts. Now, I respect the disagreement. I just want you to be clear – it’s not that I want to punish your success – I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you – that they’ve got a chance at success too.”

Again, Obama stated his view that the government is the force behind the economic success of individuals. But, that time, he wasn’t referring to small business owners like Joe who had already succeeded. Obama was talking about everyone else in the country. Making everyone successful is a pretty tall order, one that over $5 trillion in deficit spending in the past 3 1/2 years has failed to fill. One wonders why Obama never thought to cut spending in order “to pay for those other tax cuts.”

Two years later, the President stated, in a spontaneously uttered sentence, “I do think at a certain point you’ve made enough money.” In context, the sentence reads:

“We’re not, we’re not trying to push financial reform because we begrudge success that’s fairly earned. I mean, I do think at a certain point you’ve made enough money. But, you know, part of the American way is, you know, you can just keep on making it if you’re providing a good product or providing good service. We don’t want people to stop, ah, fulfilling the core responsibilities of the financial system to help grow our economy.“

Obama did catch himself almost immediately, stating that his personal belief was not policy. Maybe not then, but it is now. If government creates individual success as he insisted in 2008 and on July 13 of this year, it can arbitrarily dictate when individuals have enough.

Whether ideology gaffe or grammar goof, there’s one thing that can be said about the President’s word choices. If there were a great teacher somewhere in his life that helped him along the line, he or she wasn’t an English teacher.

See you on the left-side.