The Atlantic has a slippery essay about what Obama's "you didn't build that" speech means. Andrew Cline claims that with or without the out-of-context quote, the speech is a controversy-worthy "philosophical rewriting of the American story."
Here's what Obama 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 G.I. 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.
Cline claims Obama is saying in this speech that "government is not a tool for the people's use, but the very foundation upon which all of American prosperity is built. Government is not dependent upon the people; the people are dependent upon the government." Cline (evidently a Romney supporter) claims that his candidate isn't fully exploiting this outrageous revision of the Founding Fathers, who said the government rules by the consent of the people.
Cline thus turns a minor corrective to the usual Ayn Randian narrative about rugged individualism into a full-throated encomium to the power of the State. It's a stretch. Clearly Obama is going back and forth between "us" and "the government" in this passage. When he says "us" he means the citizenry, a collection of individuals working together, building on previous efforts -- the same citizenry that consents to be governed and delegates certain powers such as bridge-building and tax collection to officialdom. Cline claims Obama is saying "You succeeded because a greater power -- the state -- bestowed its favor upon you." That's paranoid projection, typical right wing nonsense about Obama the Kenyan socialist. Obama clearly holds no enmity for the private sector, as seen in his bank-friendly handling of the financial crisis and gifts to the insurance industry in his health care legislation. If he believed in ultimate state power he would have fought to nationalize those industries.