TAMPA (CBSMiami/NSF) – The Republican party is trying to capitalize on a single line of a lengthy speech President Barack Obama made in Roanoke, Virginia to rally the faithful and those on the fence.
As he tried to make a point that successful people have received help in various ways, President Obama said, “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.”
But more than a month later, with Republicans rallying in Tampa at their national convention, that line has become a centerpiece of the GOP’s campaign to try to oust Obama in November.
Speaker after speaker has portrayed the line as an affront to people who have built businesses and as evidence that the Democratic president is focused on big government instead of free enterprise. Republican leaders went so far as to give Tuesday night’s convention session the theme, “We Built It.”
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Wednesday that the GOP will continue to focus on the issue until the November election as it tries to draw distinctions between Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney. He said many voters understand that small-businesspeople “pour blood, sweat and tears” into making their ventures succeed.
“When the president said, ‘you didn’t build that,’ it touched a central nerve that resonated with far more Americans than just the ones who attend the Republican convention,” Putnam said.
But the Obama campaign has argued that Romney took the line out of context to distort Obama’s record. It said on its website last month that the Roanoke speech was a defense of public investment in infrastructure.
“Romney can try to manipulate those words into a political attack, but the facts belie the smear: President Obama has continuously fought to help small businesses grow by cutting their taxes and making it easier for them to invest in American jobs,” the campaign said.
According to a White House transcript of Obama’s speech, here is the portion that created the controversy:
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help,” Obama said. “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.
“The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.”
The GOP’s attempt to seize on the statement is part of a broader campaign narrative that includes calling for reduced business regulations and shrinking the size of government. Republicans hope to convince voters that Romney, a successful businessman, is better prepared than Obama to improve the economy and to tackle issues such as federal budget deficits.
Linda Ivell, a Republican state committeewoman and Realtor from Lakeland, said entrepreneurs and small-business people create jobs. She said when she heard Obama’s statement, “I thought, ‘That, in a nutshell, is the difference between Republicans and Democrats. ‘ ”
Republicans have regularly raised the issue during speeches at the convention. As an example, Romney’s son, Craig, targeted Obama’s statement Wednesday during a breakfast appearance before Florida delegates, saying it showed the president had never built a business.
But in the information posted on its website last month, the Obama campaign accused Mitt Romney of deciding to “selectively edit President Obama to make it appear like the president was insulting small businesses.” It also went on to say that Obama is “committed to building an economy that invests in education, infrastructure, and innovation alongside strong business growth.”
Putnam, however, disputed the argument that Romney and other Republicans have taken the Obama statement out of context.
“Taken out of context is usually code for, ‘I wish I hadn’t said that,’ ” Putnam said.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.