The Real Reason ‘You Didn’t Build That’ Works

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Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Mitt Romney’s plan of blatantly lying about President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” speech is clearly drawing blood. But what makes the attack work so well is not so much the lie itself but the broader subtext of it. Watch Obama’s delivery in the snippet put together by this Republican ad:

The key thing is that Obama is angry, and he’s talking not in his normal voice but in a “black dialect.” This strikes at the core of Obama’s entire political identity: a soft-spoken, reasonable African-American with a Kansas accent. From the moment he stepped onto the national stage, Obama’s deepest political fear was being seen as a “traditional” black politician, one who was demanding redistribution from white America on behalf of his fellow African-Americans.

Kimberly Strassel, a conservative Wall Street Journal editorial-page columnist who has good Republican sourcing, has a passage today that explains the crucial dynamic at play here:

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.

This is why Obama is suddenly pivoting to positive ads, with him talking to the camera. It is the soft-spoken Obama of old, with a gentle musical background. The message in the latest Obama ad is even more clear:

What concepts is Obama associating himself with here? Hard work, middle class. It’s people getting out of bed early, tossing bales of hay into trucks, wearing business attire in office settings. Not lazy-welfare-underclass.

The entire key to the rise of the Republican Party from the mid-sixties through the nineties was that white Americans came to see the Democrats as taking money from the hard-working white middle class and giving it to a lazy black underclass. Reactivating that frame is still the most mortal threat to the Democrats and to Obama. That is why Obama is reacting so urgently to reestablish himself.