‘You didn’t build that’ comment becomes flashpoint in Brown-Warren race

President Obama waves to the crowd at the outset of the July 13 rally in Roanoke, Va., where he made his “you didn’t build that” comment.
President Obama waves to the crowd at the outset of the July 13 rally in Roanoke, Va., where he made his “you didn’t build that” comment.
Sam Dean-The Roanoke Times via AP

President Obama felt so concerned about his “you didn’t build that” comment he taped a campaign commercial—in the White House, no less—aiming to put it in context, but Elizabeth Warren is embracing her shared belief with him and Scott Brown is attacking her over that.

It highlights a philosophical divide in one of the most hotly contested US Senate races in the country, one whose outcome could determine the majority party in the upper chamber of Congress come January.

Brown, the incumbent Republican senator, plans today to kick off his “thank-you for building this” series of campaign events, stopping by Commodore Builders in Framingham to drop off coffee and bagels and thank the employers and employees for their work.

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“America’s small businesses are the cornerstone of the American economy and their success is what will lead us to economic recovery, not Washington, D.C.,” Brown said in a statement issued Thursday. “It’s the creativity, ingenuity and work ethic of the American people that has made our country great. We should be celebrating small business and encouraging their success, not demonizing it.”

The visit follows a Thursday op-ed column Brown wrote for Politico, an influential website and Capitol Hill newspaper, in which he expanded on the theme.

“This anti-free enterprise attitude, epitomized by Elizabeth Warren, the liberal Harvard professor who has made it the calling card of her Senate campaign against me, is that every achievement in life is a collective effort,” Brown wrote of his Democratic challenger.

“Small-business owners might remember it a little differently, given that most of them worked long hours, risked their savings, took on personal debt, and gave up their weekends and vacations to become successful,” Brown added.

The Warren campaign didn’t initially respond itself to the op-ed, instead circulating a critical analysis of it by a liberal Washington Post blogger.

“It’s about selling voters a bill of goods — a narrative about what ails the economy that obscures the fact that Republicans don’t have a plan to fix the short term unemployment crisis. Brown and Mitt Romney want voters to believe that the recovery is being held back by taxes, regulations, and Obama’s and Warren’s disdain for your success,” wrote Post blogger Greg Sargent.

“Neither Obama nor Warren demeaned success or individual initiative, but even if they had, the idea that those sentiments are responsible for holding back the recovery is just snake oil,” he added.

In a later statement requested by the Globe, Warren spokeswoman Alethea Harney said: “Scott Brown’s economic double-talk is being exposed for what it is: more of the same tax breaks for billionaires and a system rigged for big corporations who can hire armies of lobbyists. That’s not how you create jobs or grow the economy or help small businesses and middle-class families struggling to get ahead.”

Last year, Warren laid the template for the president’s statement as she addressed a group of activists in Andover while readying for her Senate campaign launch.

“You built a factory out there? Good for you,” she energetically told the crowd. “But I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.”

The speech went viral after being posted on YouTube, much to the delight of Warren’s campaign staff. It also contributed to her rock star status among traditional liberal Democrats, and has helped her outraise all other congressional candidates this year.

This week, Democratic National Convention organizers announced that they had selected Warren to address delegates during TV prime time, so she can highlight the economic differences between Obama and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Yet Warren’s 2011 comment has also become a Republican rallying point after Obama mimicked it during while addressing a July 13 campaign rally in Roanoke, Va.

“If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that,” the president said (lead-up starts at 32:45).

Defenders noted he preceded that comment with remarks highlighting how government works in unison with entrepreneurs to support small business development. They insist “you didn’t build that” refers to his statement in the sentence before where the president said, “Somebody invested in roads and bridges.”

But critics insist a complete reading of the speech showed that Obama believes government is equally responsible as individual initiative in creating small businesses. At a latter point, the president told the Roanoke audience, “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.”

Brown has since used snippets of both speeches in his own viral web video, “Let America Be America.”