But Republicans including Romney claimed instead that the president was suggesting the government, not business owners themselves, was responsible for their achievements.
Obama first used the phrase "You didn't build that" during a campaign appearance on July 13th, 2012, in Roanoke, Va. The context was the president's call for raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans, a proposal informally known as the Buffett Rule. Romney, one of the wealthiest presidential candidates in modern political history, opposes the Buffett Rule.
The Whole Quote
Here are Obama's full remarks on the issue of raising taxes on wealthy Americans during his campaign stop in Roanoke, Va., based on official White House transcripts:
"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."
Obama repeated the theme several more times throughout his presidential campaign, including during his acceptance speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
History of the Political Argument
Obama's remarks were similar to these made in 2011 by Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts:
"There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. 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 built a factory, and it turned into something terrific or a great idea: God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."
Conservatives sharply criticized Obama's remarks, saying they were an insult to Americans who built their businesses from the ground up.
Romney used Obama's remarks as the centerpiece of his campaign immediately after the president made them. At a campaign event in Ohio in July 2012, Romney said: "Barack Obama's attempt to denigrate and diminish the achievement of the individual diminishes us all. We're a united nation, he divides us. He tries to divide America, tear America apart. He tries to diminish those who have been successful in one walk of life or another. It's simply wrong."
Romney added: "I know that you recognize a lot of people helped you in a business - perhaps the banks, the investors, there's no question your mom and dad, your school teachers, the people that provide roads, the fire, the police, a lot of people help. But let me ask you this - did you build your business? If you did, raise your hand. Take that, Mr. President."
Wrote the conservative Heritage Foundation: "That sound you hear is silence — as millions of small business owners and entrepreneurs were left speechless this weekend from President Obama’s latest insult. The slap in the face to hard-working Americans conveyed Obama’s belief that it takes a village — a heavily subsidized village — to create that venture you’re profiting from."
Obama clarified his remarks later in the campaign, but argued his "You didn't build that" comment — though poorly phrased — had been taken out of context. "Obviously, I have regrets for my syntax. But not for the point, because everyone who was there watching knows exactly what I was saying," Obama said.