Wall Street Journal
What’s the difference between a calm and cool Barack Obama, and a rattled and worried Barack Obama? Four words, it turns out.
“You didn’t build that” is swelling to such heights that it has the president somewhere unprecedented: on defense. Mr. Obama has felt compelled—for the first time in this campaign—to cut an ad in which he directly responds to the criticisms of his now-infamous speech, complaining his opponents took his words “out of context.”
That ad follows two separate ones from his campaign attempting damage control. His campaign appearances are now about backpedaling and proclaiming his love for small business. And the Democratic National Committee produced its own panicked memo, which vowed to “turn the page” on Mr. Romney’s “out of context . . . BS”—thereby acknowledging that Chicago has lost control of the message.
The Obama campaign has elevated poll-testing and focus-grouping to near-clinical heights, and the results drive the president’s every action: his policies, his campaign venues, his targeted demographics, his messaging. That Mr. Obama felt required—teeth-gritted—to address the “you didn’t build that” meme means his vaunted focus groups are sounding alarms.
The obsession with tested messages is precisely why the president’s rare moments of candor—on free enterprise, on those who “cling to their guns and religion,” on the need to “spread the wealth around”—are so revealing. They are a look at the real man. It turns out Mr. Obama’s dismissive words toward free enterprise closely mirror a speech that liberal Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren gave last August.
Ms. Warren’s argument—that government is the real source of all business success—went viral and made a profound impression among the liberal elite, who have been pushing for its wider adoption. Mr. Obama chose to road-test it on the national stage, presumably thinking it would underline his argument for why the wealthy should pay more. It was a big political misstep, and now has the Obama team seriously worried.
And no wonder. The immediate effect was to suck away the president’s momentum. Mr. Obama has little positive to brag about, and his campaign hinges on keeping negative attention on his opponent. For months, the president’s team hammered on Mr. Romney’s time at Bain, his Massachusetts tenure, his tax returns. “You didn’t build that” shifted the focus to the president, and his decision to respond to the criticisms has only legitimized them and guaranteed they continue.
The Obama campaign’s bigger problem, both sides are now realizing, is that his words go beyond politics and are more devastating than the Romney complaints that Mr. Obama is too big-government oriented or has mishandled the economy. They raise the far more potent issue of national identity and feed the suspicion that Mr. Obama is actively hostile to American ideals and aspirations. Republicans are doing their own voter surveys, and they note that Mr. Obama’s problem is that his words cause an emotional response, and that they disturb voters in nearly every demographic.
It’s why Mr. Obama’s “out of context” complaints aren’t getting traction. The Republican National Committee’s response to that gripe was to run an ad that shows a full minute of Mr. Obama’s rant at the Roanoke, Va., campaign event on July 13. In addition to “you didn’t build that,” the president also put down those who think they are “smarter” or “work harder” than others. Witness the first president to demean the bedrock American beliefs in industriousness and exceptionalism. The “context” only makes it worse.
This gets to the other reason the Obama campaign is rattled: “You didn’t build that” threatens to undermine its own argument against Mr. Romney. Mr. Obama has been running on class warfare and the notion that Mr. Romney is a wealthy one-percenter out of touch with average Americans. Yet few things better symbolize the average American than a small-business owner. To the extent that Mr. Romney is positioning himself as champion of that little business guy and portraying Mr. Obama as something alien, he could flip the Obama narrative on its head.
It would be all the more potent were Mr. Romney to use “you didn’t build that” to launch his own economic narrative. One unexpected side effect of “you didn’t build that” is that it has emboldened the GOP to re-embrace and glory in free enterprise (so abused since the financial crash). And the president’s disparaging attack on business has also made voters more open to a defense of it.
Meaning, it’s a perfect time to marry emotion with some policy. Mr. Romney has explained why the president doesn’t get it. The next step is to explain why his own tax policies, regulatory proposals, and entitlement plans are the answer for those who actually do the building. The president is on defense. We’ll see if Mr. Romney can keep him there.