Both President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain went to graduate school. Obama got a degree at Harvard Law School. Cain did his graduate work at Purdue and Burger King University. That doesn’t tell you all you need to know about the difference between Obama and Cain, but it explains a lot.

Obama and Cain are African Americans, but there the likeness ends. Obama is a liberal, Cain a conservative. Their parents, their upbringing, their education, their careers, the lessons they learned from life—these are as dissimilar as where they’ve wound up, Obama in the White House and Cain as a successful corporate executive.

Until recent months, there was no reason to consider the contrast between the two. But now Obama’s presidency is crumbling. His reelection in 2012 is in jeopardy. The economy is weak, and Americans disapprove of his handling of it by a two-to-one margin. Even in the Democrat-controlled Senate, there aren’t enough votes to pass his new jobs bill.

Cain’s campaign is surging. After strong performances in four nationally televised Republican debates last month, he jumped into third place in the GOP race in a Fox News poll at 17 percent, close behind Rick Perry (19 percent) and Mitt Romney (23 percent). A Rasmussen poll of likely voters in late September found Cain trailing Obama, 39 percent to 34 percent.

Thus the interest in the backgrounds of Cain and Obama. Much of Obama’s is known. His mother was an academic with a Ph.D. in anthropology. She had two failed marriages to foreigners. Obama’s father, a Kenyan student, left the family when Obama was a toddler. From ages 6 to 10, Barack lived with his mother and his Indonesian stepfather and half-sister in Jakarta, then went back to Hawaii to live with his grandparents.

Cain’s early life was far more stable. He grew up in a black section of Atlanta. His mother worked as a maid, his father as a barber, janitor, and chauffeur. “Dad worked all three jobs until he could make it off two jobs,” Cain writes in This Is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House, his fifth book. “Then he worked those two jobs until he could make it off of one job. That’s the experience shared by many Americans.” Not Obama’s parents.

In Atlanta, Cain went to segregated Archer High School. In 1967, he graduated from Morehouse College, a bus ride away from his home. He majored in math. In Honolulu, starting in fifth grade, Obama went to Punahou, one of the most prestigious private schools in the country. He spent two years at Occidental College in Los Angeles before transferring to Columbia, where he majored in political science, followed by Harvard Law, where he was editor of the law review.

Neither Cain nor Obama took part in the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. Cain, now 65 years old, was in school, and Obama, 50, was a child. But Cain experienced segregation more than Obama did. In 1963, his applications were turned down at the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech. “Having been desegregated for only two years, they chose to keep black students at a minimum,” Cain writes.

Cain says he benefited from the civil rights movement when he graduated from all-black Morehouse. “I received 25 job offers, and they came from some of America’s most respected and successful corporations,” he says.

One more contrast. Church attendance was a staple of Cain’s rearing, and today he’s an evangelical Christian. His faith helped him through stage 4 cancer when 70 percent of his liver and 30 percent of his colon were removed. Having survived, he says, “My journey is God’s plan.” That includes his “journey to the White House.” Obama embraced Christianity as an adult in Chicago. Unlike Cain’s faith, Obama’s stresses the social gospel rather than salvation through belief in Christ as his savior.

What did Cain and Obama learn from their families and education? “One of the most important lessons Dad taught us was not to feel like victims,” Cain writes. “He never felt like a victim. He never talked like a victim. And both our parents taught us not to think that the government owed us something. They didn’t teach us to be mad at this country.”

Based on his career, Obama didn’t draw the same lessons. He concluded America is an unjust country. He became a community organizer, a civil rights lawyer, a state senator,

a U.S. senator, and president—all the while pursuing liberal efforts to aid perceived victims of the free-market economy through strong government intervention.

Cain entered the market economy, succeeding at Pillsbury, Godfather’s Pizza, and Burger King. He writes about going to Burger King U., where new managers are taught the hamburger business. He learned “the broiler, steamer, burger board, Whopper board, specialty sandwich board, and fry station.”

While still in school, Cain writes, “I began to develop my concept of being responsible for one’s success or failure in life—a concept I would later come to define as being a ‘CEO of Self’—a time when many of the qualities of determination and leadership that I inherited from my dad began to show up.” Obama stresses collective action.

Yet it’s his faith in himself, along with God’s calling, that has led Cain to believe he can capture the presidency. He wasn’t deterred by losing a Senate bid in Georgia in 2004. When he took over Godfather’s Pizza, it was on the brink of bankruptcy. He mastered “pizzaology,” introduced the “Big Value” of two large pizzas for $12, and turned the company around.

“I see parallels between the situation that existed at Godfather’s when I came on board and the state of our Union today,” he writes. Obama is “in denial,” Cain says. “He’s a weak leader, his economic policies have failed, and he’s been inconsistent on foreign policy.” Cain “will do what I did when I helped restore Godfather’s Pizza.” That means conservative policies and the tenacity to see them through.

His upbringing may explain his gift for delivering a conservative message with a friendly face, as Ronald Reagan did. “I also like to smile, laugh, and have fun with people,” he says. Obama is lugubrious. He lectures. He gives excuses. His speeches are anything but fun.

But Obama has the White House, a bulging war chest, a vast campaign staff, powerful interest groups, and the media. Three or four Republican candidates have resources Cain cannot match. He has himself. But if all continues to go well for him, help may be on the way.

Fred Barnes is executive editor at The Weekly Standard.

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