The Meaning of "That"

Mitt Romney is, without doubt, a representative of contemporary capitalism, a spectacularly rich financier who got his money not by making things but by buying and selling companies, exploiting leverage, and a whole bunch of other things folks like you and me will never have the privilege of understanding. So it isn't surprising that this campaign has featured a debate about the nature of our economic system. That debate could be a salutary and educational discussion that leaves us all more informed and aware. Or it could be an occasion for some of the most vile demagoguery you could imagine. Do you need to ask which course it will take?

By now, we can all agree that a large portion of the Republican party has created in their minds an imaginary Barack Obama, one who is either a literal or philosophical foreigner (Romney has begun dropping the word "foreign" in as often as he can when discussing Obama), who hates America (here's Rush Limbaugh on Monday: "I think it can now be said, without equivocation—without equivocation—that this man hates this country"), and one who hates success, hates rich people, and hates capitalism itself. And if you can't find any actual evidence for these propositions—if "Barack Obama hates job creators so much he actually wants to increase the top income tax rate by 4.6 percentage points!" doesn't have quite the ring you'd like—then it isn't hard to find words you can twist around to make your point.

Which brings us to the word "that." If you've been to a Mitt Romney speech in the last day or so, or if you've watched Fox News or listened to conservative talk radio, or even if you've watched some mainstream news*, you would have heard that Barack Obama said that people who own businesses didn't actually build their businesses. Only a secret socialist could say such a thing, and Romney and his allies assure us that Obama did indeed say that and he is indeed that kind of person. But here's what Obama actually said:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me -- because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t -- 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.

So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for President -- because I still believe in that idea. You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.

When this quote worked its way up from the conservative media to the Romney campaign, they knew they had something. Sure, it's obvious that when Obama said "you didn't build that" he was talking about roads and bridges. But who cares? You can take that one sentence out of context, lie about what "that" in the quote refers to, and you've got evidence of Obama's America-hating heart.

And yes, it is a lie, a word I use carefully. Romney and the people who work for him know full well what Obama was and wasn't saying. But they decided to go ahead and engage in an act of intentional deception anyway, and I'm sure he'll be repeating it many times.

There's actually a discussion to be had about the radical individualism that has taken over the conservative movement, which Obama was responding to in his speech. I'd be interested to hear Mitt Romney's thoughts on it, not in a "gotcha" kind of way, but because I genuinely want to know what his response to Obama's arguments would be. Does he think that every rich person got rich completely on their own and owes nothing to the society that created the context that allowed their wealth to be created? I really have no idea. But the deeper into this campaign we go, the more it becomes clear that we'll never know what Romney really believes about anything. And he may not be the most dishonest presidential candidate we've ever seen, but give him time—he's working on it.


*Last night I saw Peter Alexander on NBC Nightly News do a story in which he showed Obama's quote clipped exactly as Romney did, making it seem that Romney was being absolutely truthful. It was one of the most maddening acts of journalistic jackassery I've seen in some time.


Mitt's Republican, and they've always had but one mantra since Lincoln freed the slaves to depress the price of labor for his precious railroads: "Screw the Workers!!"

Mitt is like the wind, changeable. He was a Democrat until it wasn't convenient.

Mitt is like the wind, changeable. He was a Democrat until it wasn't convenient.

Obama's Dumbocrats, they've always had one mantra - SCREW THE TAXPAYERS!

Fair taxes. That's the rallying cry lately.

Sure, it's obvious that when Obama said "you didn't build that" he was talking about roads and bridges.

Actually, it's pretty obvious that "that" cannot refer to "roads and bridges" because "that" is singular (as is "business") and "roads and bridges" is plural. Besides, "business" is closer to "that" in the speech, which is another reason why "that" refers to "business." You can try to argue that the President didn't mean what he said, but you can't argue that he said it.

The President had a point that if the US were simply a lawless wilderness, no one could set up a fast-food restaurant or software company here. That doesn't diminish the fact that these businesses exist because entrepreneurs took risks to set up those businesses, risks that were not borne by the taxpayers (unless, of course, you are a solar company that got sweetheart deals from the government...).

Exactly Frank.M! ~well said.
How is it that Mr. Obama, the brilliant orator seems to be so often misunderstood?
He said exactly what he meant and now his apologists are parsing the meaning of the word "that".
This reminds me a bit of the meaning of the word "is" debate not too long ago.

What he has said is identical to what his comrade Elizabeth Warren has said here in MA in her senate race.
She and her fellow statists honestly believe that the collective drives progress when this has proven false time and time again.

If Mr. Obama believes he is being misunderstood, call a press conference and correct the record.
Explain how you understand that the hard working people who take risk, invest their lifeblood and struggle for the hope of a better future for their family are the creative power that raises all of our living standards.

It is frightening when "Atlas Shrugged" and "1984" have become prophetic.
Producers are demonized and "Doublethink" is covered by the "Newspeak" of the media.

Seriously? Too much Fox Kool Aid for you.

Of course Frank.M is correct. One can argue either that the "smartest man ever to be president" doesn't understand the basic rules of grammar or that he meant exactly what his critics say he meant. My view is that it is both--the man who was admitted to some of the best schools in the country and was editor of the Harvard Law Review refuses to release his transcripts. His rise through academia was not accomplished through his own intelligence or hard work, but through the patronage of guilty white liberals and progressive idealogues who desperately wanted to see a black man succeed. When affirmative action wasn't enough to propel Obama above harder working, more qualified candidates, he relied on his Chicago thug friends to clear a path for him (release of sealed divorce records of a political opponent, etc.). The consistent theme running throughout Obama's life--in his own words and in the words of others--is that he has also done the minimum necessary and relied on others to secure his advancement. His tenures as editor of the Harvard Law Review, as an attorney, as a lecturer at the University of Chicago, as a state senator, and as a U.S. Senator are touted as great accomplishments by his supporters, but never because of anything he actually accomplished in any of those positions. His presidency, by comparison, is almost distinguished: after all, he has played more than one hundred rounds of golf and held even more fundraisers. The real point of Obama's ridiculous remarks is that--as is usual for the narcissist in chief--they were autobiographical.


Wait... what was that about large scale farm subsidies? Everyone in this country is in love with welfare until it stops benefiting them directly. Public dollars fund schools from K to college, maintain roads and utilities, a police force, a military.... want to go on? Your life is subsidized and the only point of debate is how much to tax people making more than 125k. I don't have tears enough to weep for the poor, huddled, elite.

Facepalm. I haven't seen such a ridiculously tortured semantic spin since Republicans, confronted with the full text of Al Gore's claim that he sponsored legislation to promote the creation of the Internet as we know it today, tried to prove that it DID TO mean he "invented" the internet when he obviously didn't. Wow, every person in America is going to parse the President's statements for correct use of plural pronouns, aren't they? Or maybe they'll have the sense to understand what he said from the obvious context -- if the spineless media of this country ever bothers to let them hear it. Can't go being "truth vigilantes," you know, Ann Coulter might say something mean about your "bias." Sheesh.

If you read Obama's comments in entirety, they are a frightening revelation of his view of the role of government. He clearly believes that government is the source of progress and wealth (note his reference to large govt funded projects that "we" did together, ie govt and citizens). Marxist.

Marx was a communist. This is about socialism, not communism. Einstein equated socialism with social justice. So what is "fair" to you? That is a reasonable discussion to have.

The only difference between socialism and communism is... time

The two methods are very different. Socialists tend to look for fair ways to equalize opportunities. Communists look for ways to equalize conditions. One allows you to climb and acquire, the other prevents you from attaining anything more than everyone else gets. Socialism is a guiding ethical principle. Free market economics has left this country in a lurch and is dangerously close to creating an authoritarian state. The poor are staying poor while the rich are getting richer. I don't want to live in a country that has dictated opportunity and social status and I don't think you do either.

I recommend that you go read Milos Forman's excellent op ed in the New York Times about a week ago. As a former resident of Czechoslovakia in the bad old days he finds it really offensive to hear any sort of government services at all equated with the reality of Communism as he lived it. Like irresponsible comparisons to the Holocaust, it's trivializing and demeaning, as well as displaying mind boggling ignorance. "Socialism" in the sense of providing humane support for the poor, sick and needy, is what gives European countries a higher standard of living, better life expectancy and lower infant mortality than the U.S.A. So by all means let's resist any such programs, in the name of preserving our "exceptionalism." I'd much rather be trapped in a job due to a pre-existing condition than be "enslaved" by free health care, wouldn't you? I'd rather have the right to be physically or sexually abused on the job than have a "paternalistic" government interfere. I'd rather have my grandson go without formal education than go to a taxpayer-supported public school. And if I lost my job, I would hate to be deprived of my dignity by being able to continue eating while looking for a new one. A year or two of starvation is really good for the soul.


Dear Author,
I disagree with your view that Obama was "obviously" referring to "roads and bridges".
1. If he had been, he would have used the plural "those" as in -- "You didn't build those."
2. The basic rule is that the "that" refers back to the nearest noun. In this case, "business". Accomplished speakers rarely make the mistake of having it refer to an earlier noun for it easily confuses people.
3. The "that" right after is again in the singular, i.e. not "those"

I'm sorry, but I think your anger (and rebuke and concern) is -- are :) -- misplaced.

Let's look at the sentence in question. "If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that." Hard to imagine that the "that" reference skips right past "business" all the way back to the previos sentence. Then he says it again, "somebody else made that happen." So this second "that" has to go back two sentences. Did she also misspeakMaybe this great speaker is somewhat less than clear. The differing interpretation is hardly "lying."

Further, compare to Elizabeth Warren, whose comments Obama was apparently copying. Did she also mean that society build the roads and bridges. Or do we need to parse her words also?

It's hard to believe only if you first heard that sentence out of context, formed your mistaken opinion of what it meant, and now don't want to give up that reading despite evidence to the contrary.

If you give Obama credit for proper parsing of the English language, he would have used "them" (3rd person plural subjective pronoun) when referring to "roads and bridges" rather than "it" (3rd person singular subjective pronoun). "It" however, works nicely if President Obama had meant to refer to "a business".

Let's put that aside for a moment, however, and look at taking your analysis at face value. It still fails. For the government does not, in fact, build roads or bridges. It contracts that work out to private construction companies, who front the money for the work and then wait 30, 60 or 90 days for payment.

Private construction companies pretty much tend to share the same story of origin. A guy with a truck and some power tools takes out a line of credit on his house, risking everything. He then bids projects, pays out money for payroll and materials, and hopes he makes a living. Some succeed, many don't; those that don't can lose that house that financed their business.

So who built that business? The guy who risked everything, or the government agency that let the contract? I'm sorry. I'm going with the guy that risked everything. He puts his property, his time, his future and his health on the line. The bureaucrat that lets the contract risks nothing.

No matter how you slice and dice Obama's comments, he is just plain wrong. Our economy and its prosperity depends on guys who take that risk. The one who puts everything on the line is the one who deserves full credit for building that road/bridge/business.

Sounds like the hardworking folks have got this right: Obama meant what he said - government is king. One note on Obama's grammer: read a really good book on who really wrote Dreams of my Father, turns out that on many of the papers, articles, etc. that Obama actually wrote, he constantly got singular and plural mixed up. So he could have referred back to the roads and bridges, with "that", he just has awful grammer, and really isn't the smart guy the media has portrayed! Even if he referred to the roads and bridges, his point was that government is king, and the hardworking folks are lucky and stupid.

Bill Ayers has offered to split the royalties from "Dreams from my Father" with anyone who can prove he wrote it. So far, no one has gotten any cash. Give it up, will you? Do you seriously think anyone uses the same informal grammar in written prose that he would use in everyday speech? Next time YOU use a singular pronoun when you should have used a plural, I hope the grammar police call you on it, but that's extremely unlikely to happen because everyone does it all the time.

"Only a secret socialist could say such a thing" It's no secret, Obama IS a 100% Marxist. He's been telegraphing that by thought word and deed for 3 1/2 years and now we have the clearest example with his own words, which make me see RED every time I hear them. Obama is not an American at heart and does NOT support the Constitution. Fire him!

Only in the alternative universe that considers the tea party mainstream. I don't know how you can look at a soft-spoken, well mannered, well-groomed man whose signature legislative accomplishment has been passing a health care reform that came straight out of the Heritage foundation and see a submachine-brandishing, Afro-wearing 60's era Black Panther. But somehow, you do.

I like what Pat Sajak had to say about Obama's attack on business and defining moments that sink campaigns:

"It’s as if President Obama climbed into a tank, put on his helmet, talked about how his foray into Cambodia was seared in his memory, looked at his watch, misspelled “potato” and pardoned Richard Nixon all in the same day. "

That's hilarious, and not for the reasons Sajak (truly a great expert on politics) thinks.

Both candidates are lying. has proven false several ads made by both candidates. However, neither candidate is a fundamentally bad person. Both want what is best for America, they just have a different philosophy. The economy sucks right now. More than 8% official unemployment and 15% real unemployment. Economic growth is practically flat. Obama doesn't really understand how to govern or manage the governmetn. Neither did George W Bush. We have had two straight administrations where the actual man in charge was not prepared to be the chief executive of the country. We haven't really had real leadership in more than a decade in this country. Romney does seem to have more of that experience; governor, turning the olympics around, turning numerous businesses around. He has a fairly positive track record. He has also worked with Democrats to get things done in Massachusetts. His record there wan't great, but when he started they were 47th in job creation and when he left they were 30th. That is something. The Olympics were almost bankrupt and he turned thouse around. That is something. He was successful in business. Romney is a smart man. We need someone like that. He is competant. Obama is not competent. Neither was Bush. They just were not real leaders. Romney will be.

Both O and R are offering clarity to their outlook and policy. Socialism is taking team work to the extreme. It is collective non-accountability. O had and has all the chance to be successful. This is despite the lift he got from majority of the people in the country. No amount of collective support will make things happen, if the Leader is an amateur like O.

Really? Not even a bailout that stopped the economic free-fall? Not even a highly conservative health-care reform bill? Not even . . . forget it. I could list the amazing number of things that HAVE happened successfully, but in your universe they don't exist.

Even if Obama was referring to roads and bridges, the government didnt' technically build the road/bridges. They took money from one group (taxpayers) and gave it to another group (construction businesses) to get the road built. Its the taxpayers (both individuals and corporations) which funded everything and are using the roads. The government is to serve the people, yet Obama feels the people are to serve the government.

Even if Obama was referring to roads and bridges, the government didnt' technically build the road/bridges. They took money from one group (taxpayers) and gave it to another group (construction businesses) to get the road built. Its the taxpayers (both individuals and corporations) which funded everything and are using the roads. The government is to serve the people, yet Obama feels the people are to serve the government.

so the words "and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." have no real resonance for you?

The government is an entity reflecting the will of the people. The people have collectively assumed certain responsibilities via their tax dollars, such as funding roads and bridges, because they know that every $ invested in these things will be returned to them manyfold over.

How have you drawn your amazingly bold conclusion that "Obama feels the people are to serve the government."

The late Daniel Schorr once remarked, during the Savings and Loan crisis (one of the results of Reagan/Bush 41 policy that's been popped down the memory hole) that a listener called in to ask him why taxpayers had to pay for the bailout. Why, he wanted to know, couldn't the government pay for it instead? Earth to iglen, the government does not have any source of revenue except the taxes that we the people pay for the services that we the people use.

It's called "politics." A few months ago, Romney made a comment about ending federal funding for Planned Parenthood. The Obama campaign intentionally misinterpreted Romney's statement to mean that Romney would end Planned Parenthood. What goes around comes around.

I agree 100% that Romney is misleading on the phrase " you didn't build that" but the overall tone ( even if you accept it as completely accurate) of Obama's speech is that he is being critical of business. He is creating a straw man ( a selfish businessman who is ungrateful and thinks he owes the world nothing) but conservative businessmen are amongst the most charitable Americans. Romney himself donated more to charity than he paid in taxes in 2010 and almost twice as much if you include the milions he gave to his church. Romney did not take a salary when he was Govenor of Massachusetts. He served as a counsellor and missionary for his church. He is not a greedy guy. He has always been involved in his community. He is a successful businessman and has given tens of millions to charity. Disagree with his policies but don't attack him as some greedy, uncaring businessman. In one Obama ad, he was called a vampire and in a pro Obama California union ad, he was called " a man without feelings"

Mormonism requires a tithe from their members and requires community involvement. The fact that he gives a lot of money to the Mormon church is no great surprise and in no way makes him a saint.

Those "straw men" exist, and their names are Koch, Murdoch, Adelson, and a great many others who have taken great pains to conceal their identities.

Paul Waldman is missing the point entirely. Whether "that" meant the plurality of infrastructure projects or businesses isn't important. The isssue was the Obama has the gall to wag his finger at businesspeople, explaining the obvious, as if we were too naïve to understand the fact that we don't function alone.

No sh-t Sherlock, really? Mr. Resident, we understand precisely who helps us and who does not. We are, in fact, absorbed with understanding who and what benefits us, who makes sacrifices for us, and takes risk on our behalf.

Government does NOT exist to "give" anything, the government exists to perform limited services for us (business owners and private employees). We pay dearly for those services with our tax dollars and in some cases our blood. Politicians like Obama are trying their best to expand that role into controlling the means of production, controlling commerce, and controlling lives. That is his agenda and that is the problem. Thankyouverymuch.

Tell us exactly how Obama is taking control of "the means of production." Even his health care policy doesn't include a government-provided insurance option, it only places some regulations on the private companies that will continue to provide insurance.

It may be obvious that the sweat of the laborer makes the wealth for the business owner, but it's too rarely said. A reminder every now and again is useful, if not profound. We get blitzed everyday with media trumpeting the genius of this or that tycoon. It's a rare thing to hear that it took thousands of people, each contributing their effort and each receiving a bit less than they're worth, to get him there. Obama's appeal, in large part, is that he acknowledges the contributions of common people and refuses to indulge in the hero worship this country loves.

For what it is worth, I will allow Obama to clarify his earlier remark. But I don't think it helps him very much. He is still making an obnoxious straw man argument. Conservatives are not arguing against spending for police or fire or the military. Legitimate spending on public services and infrastructure has not been controversial since the days of ancient Rome. But Obama wants to continue the expansion of the services paid for by government.

There is a lot of cutting back of precisely those services. Fire, police, education, etc. These cuts could be avoided if a very few paid a fair share of taxes. For that matter we could all quit worrying about funding for social programs if we scaled our military budget back to match China's.

Oh do you mean like the 49% of people who PAY NO INCOME TAXES? Do you mean all the ILLEGAL ALiENS, oh, excuse me, undocumented workers, who PAY NO INCOME TAXES? Should they pay SOMETHING and have some skin in the game of running this country? Or do they just get a free ride all around? They just get to sit around all day, waiting for that next gov't check to come in the mail, while the rest of us are out busting our humps, and then on top of it all, they don't have to pay any taxes at all. It's nice to sit in the wagon to get pulled along. Only problem is the wagon is getting awfully heavy and is about to topple over.

You mean that people who have no income don't pay income taxes? How outrageous. Put them in debtor's prison, or better yet, force them into indentured servitude. Then give the Job Creators another tax cut, because if we keep doing it long enough they might create a job or two.

So I was a security guard working at 12.00 an hour for about 7 years. I am a legal citizen who always paid his taxes. Every year I got every cent back... because I was very poor by California standards. I just managed to make it by and still paid 10 percent of every dollar in sales taxes. So I gave nothing to the feds but contributed fully to my state. When I hear that I paid 10 percent of 20k every year, and that Romney paid less than 15% of untold billions I want to spit. I get the occupy movement's rage and I think Obama is picking up on it too. Try being poor for a while. If it wasn't for government support getting through school, I'd still be a security guard.

where are the effing jobs obama? 14 percent uneployment. 16 trillion in debt. where are the fking jobs obama, you moron.

Ask Bernanke. Ask the Republicans in Congress. And ask Mitt, because he'll tell you -- they're all in China and Korea. More bang for your megabuck that way.

Are you kidding me???!!! Obama spends a week bashing Romney on an outright lie that is debunked by the Washpost and democrats who work at Bain and now Romney is a "Liar" because he actually quotes what Obama actually said?? !!!! WTF???? You must be smoking what Obama majored in buying in the CHOOM GANG...the only organization he ever ran!!!


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