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Originally published August 29, 2012 at 8:05 PM | Page modified August 30, 2012 at 9:36 AM

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Fact check: Context missing in GOP's repeated 'we-built it' theme

A closer look at President Obama's "you didn't build that" quote from which Republicans continue to slam.

The Washington Post

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Editor's note: An occasional look at the rhetoric and claims made by political campaigns and whether they adhere to the facts.

"I can tell you Mitt Romney was not handed success. He built it."

— Ann Romney, Aug. 28, 2012

Can an entire convention be built around a grammatical error?

We wondered about that as we watched the first night of the Republican convention. From House Speaker John Boehner to Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus to Ann Romney, speaker after speaker made reference to Barack Obama's statement that "If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."

When Ann Romney said her husband "was not handed success, he built it," the delegates began chanting: "We built it," which in fact was the official theme for the convention Tuesday.

Democrats have complained that Obama's words were clearly taken out of context and Republicans have argued that even in context, his words exposed a philosophy that was deeply suspicious of — even hostile to — the private sector.

What was 'that'?

For readers who have not read Obama's remarks in full context, here is the complete quote. It is often truncated in campaign ads.

"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."

The key question is whether "that" refers to "roads and bridges" — as the Obama campaign contends — or to a business. It's a bit of a judgment call, but the clincher was Obama's concluding line: "The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together."

Obama appears to be making the unremarkable point that companies and entrepreneurs often benefit in some way from taxpayer support for roads, education and so forth. In other words, he is trying to make the case for higher taxes, and for why he believes the rich should pay more, which is part of a long Democratic tradition. He just did not put it very eloquently.

(Warning to Democrats: You will get the same scrutiny on out-of-context Romney quotes next week. It's really a silly thing on which to base a campaign.)

On welfare reform

Another misguided assertion on the first night was the claim that President Obama waived the work requirement for welfare.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former congressman Artur Davis made variations of this claim. As Santorum put it, "This summer he (Obama) showed us once again he believes in government handouts and dependency by waiving the work requirement for welfare. I helped write the welfare-reform bill; we made the law crystal clear: No president can waive the work requirement."

The administration did not waive the work requirement. Instead, it invited governors to apply on behalf of their states for waivers of administrative requirements in the 1996 law. Some states have complained those rules tie up caseworkers who could be helping clients directly.

In a July 18 letter to congressional leaders, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said that to be eligible for a waiver, governors must commit that their plans will move at least 20 percent more people from welfare to work. Moreover, states must show clear progress toward the goal within a year, or lose the waiver.

"We will not accept any changes that undercut employment-focused welfare reforms that were signed into law fifteen years ago," Sebelius wrote.

Santorum would be correct to suggest there is something fishy about the administration's legal reasoning. But one cannot make the rhetorical leap that Santorum does and conclude that this means that Obama believes in government handouts and dependency.

There has been no dispute among fact checkers on this question, with PolitiFact awarding the GOP claim "Pants on Fire" and FactCheck.org also saying it was incorrect. Interestingly, Romney pollster Neal Newhouse dismissed the complaints of fact-checking organizations after a Romney ad executive said that an ad based on this assertion was "our most effective ad."

"Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs, and we're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers," he told BuzzFeed.

The Romney campaign may not want to be dictated by fact checkers, but campaign officials certainly like to quote us when it serves their purposes.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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