President Barack Obama in Oakland, Calif. (Paul Sakuma/AP)
In a sharply worded counterattack, President Barack Obama is accusing Mitt Romney of having gone "over the edge" by distorting his recent remarks about small businesses—his by-now-notorious "you didn't build that" comment.
"Look, in politics we all tolerate a certain amount of spin," Obama told supporters in Oakland, Calif., late Monday. "I understand these are the games that get played in political campaigns, 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 fight centers on a snippet of Obama's remarks at a campaign stop in Roanoke, Va., where the president sang the praises of government investment in infrastructure like roads and bridges as well as in education and concluded: "If you've got a business—you didn't build that."
Team Romney and the Republican National Committee have pulled the remark out of context to argue that Obama was dismissing the role of personal initiative in creating jobs and saying that the government, not the private sector, deserves the credit. The full remarks (included at the bottom of this post) make it abundantly clear that the president wasn't denigrating entrepreneurs. (In Roanoke, Obama concluded his argument by saying: "The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.")
"Frankly, the other side knows they can't sell their ideas, so what they're going to do is try to distort my vision," Obama said in Oakland, accusing Romney of "knowingly twisting my words around." "I believe with all my heart that it is the drive and the ingenuity of Americans who start businesses that lead to their success," the president said. "I always have and I always will."
(Now for your cynicism-fueling "both sides do it" moment: Democrats, including the Obama campaign, earlier this year warped one of Romney's comments, "I like being able to fire people," beyond recognition, ripping it from its context. The former Massachusetts governor was talking about being able to change insurance companies if you're unhappy with the service you're getting from your current provider. Democrats used it to paint Romney as a heartless practitioner of locust capitalism who enjoys handing out pink slips. With the sour economy the top worry on voters' minds, each side has fought to portray the other as dangerously out of touch on the issue.)
There's no mistaking the extent to which this Republican attack has gotten under Team Obama's skin: In addition to rating a mention in the president's stump speech, it has drawn multiple video messages from the re-election campaign.
In the latest such salvo, deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter says Romney's ad "blatantly twists President Obama's words," accuses him of "not telling the truth," warns the comments are "out of context," calls the attack "ridiculous," insists that Obama "didn't say that," and suggests the vastly successful Republican investor doesn't understand how the economy works.
"Every time they do this, we need to call them out," she says in the three-minute pitch. "We all have a relative who spends all their time forwarding those crazy email chains. So make sure they get the facts, too."
The Obama campaign also enlisted the co-founder and former CEO of Costco, Jim Sinegal, who defended the president in a message posted on the campaign's website late Monday.
"You might be seeing some ads or hearing some folks say that President Obama doesn't support small business owners," Sinegal said. "But he understands that small businesses grow and prosper because of individual initiative—because entrepreneurs like you and me do the hard work it takes, and that we can't do it alone."
Do Republicans know they've gotten inside Team Obama's head a bit? You bet.
"Steph Cutter and Team Obama continue throwing their fake tantrum over the context of the president's economic comments thinking we'll overlook reality," Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said in an emailed statement on Tuesday. "The fact is from his 'you didn't build that' and the private sector is 'doing fine' comments to the fact that he hasn't met with his jobs council in six months and hasn't had a daily economic briefing in over a year, we know these aren't gaffes or out of context—they are Obama's beliefs."
"Doing fine" referred to Obama's contention, during an early June appearance in the White House briefing room, that "the private sector is doing fine" compared to the cash-strapped public sector, which has been laying off workers. The resulting Republican outcry and media coverage led the president to clarify his comments a few hours later, telling reporters: "It is absolutely clear that the economy is not doing fine."
The RNC on Tuesday upped the dosage, releasing a new online video pointing out that Obama's jobs council hasn't met in months and charging that he has not received a daily economic briefing in a year.
Here is the full passage of Obama's relevant remarks in Roanoke:
"Look, if you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own. You didn't get there on your own. 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. 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."