You didn’t win that

Let us imagine the party to mark the return to the US of Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian ever. We can be sure of two things. The person introducing Phelps will stress his remarkable achievements. Phelps himself will respond by saying that he does not deserve all the credit. He will thank those who have helped him along the way: parents, teachers, coaches. He might even mention the taxpayers who paid for the pool in which he learnt to swim and the roads by which he traveled there. Many people contributed to achievements on this scale. Phelps will graciously acknowledge this, while others stress his talent and his dedication. Now let us turn this on its head.

Imagine that Phelps is introduced by someone who talks at length about all the others who contributed to his success and baldly tells Phelps “you didn’t win that” only for Phelps to respond that he was the one who got up at five every morning through childhood and teens and he was the one who trained for hours every day. A party held on such a basis would not be a celebration of anyone’s achievements and would leave everyone who attended feeling sour and angry.

Well, you have all been invited to such a party and it won’t be over until November.

Apologists for the President claim the quote “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen” was taken out of context. This is a common retort of people caught saying something they regret. It is a convenient defense because it is true. It is always true. The Romney campaign is hardly likely to have used Obama’s entire speech, and if they did, there is still other context. The problem for the President is that the context makes the quote worse.

Let us first deal with the claim that the pronoun “that” did not refer to the word “business”. Apparently, it referred to the phrase “roads and bridges” in the previous sentence. “that roads and bridges”? Professor Obama’s grammar is better than that. Well, maybe if referred to a noun in the sentence before that? Or one in an earlier paragraph? Or maybe an earlier speech? Any reasonable reading of the text is that “that” referred to the most proximate noun “business”. Otherwise it is not only badly constructed and ungrammatical, but includes a conditional clause that is not a condition. “If you’ve got a business” means literally nothing unless “that” refers to “business”. You didn’t build “that roads and bridges” whether you have a business or not.

Elsewhere in the speech, the President does acknowledge that individuals make some contribution to their own success. He does not specify how much. But the whole context of the speech is designed to minimize the contribution of individual effort and talent. He stresses that it is not down to intelligence or hard work that people succeed, while grudgingly implying that these factors may play some part.

It is not just a sour and angry message, but it runs in deepest contrast to his campaign four years ago of hope and change. A message of hope would be that if you work hard, you can change things. This is a message that, no matter how hard you work, you can change nothing without the government’s help.

Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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