President Obama's phrasing is unfortunate. If he had completed the thought - "If you've got a business, you didn't build that on your own" - this whole kerfuffle would never have arisen. The rest of the president's statement makes clear his intent.
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.I believe this is obviously true.
In watching the convention, it is clear that both sides perceive the world differently. One side sees the achievements of your life as almost entirely your own work. The other side sees the mountain of work done by other people - including other people working through the government, but also much, much more - that makes my achievement possible. The president gave a few examples, which could be multiplied almost infinitely. And if you believe, as I and most Americans do, that God created the entire universe and still actively superintends it, then the realm of "I built this on my own" shrinks to a tiny fraction of my achievements, indeed.
The major insight that sociology brings to this problem is that privilege creates a whole ladder of unearned benefits that help us "build it." And the greatest privilege is not realizing that you are privileged. If you are, for example, a white man in America, from a rich, powerful family, who went to a leading prep school and the fanciest graduate school, you have a huge leg up - even if you then use that privilege to build up a successful business.
Hard work and responsibility are good things which we should honor and assist. But few indeed build anything, no matter how smart and hardworking they are, by themselves.