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The Businessman vs. the Professor

The personal dimension of the Romney-Obama face off.

Apr 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 31 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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Finally, there is very little chance that the issue of being able to handle an emergency, another matter that figured prominently in many recent campaigns, will be raised in this one. We will hear criticisms, to be sure, of some of President Obama’s foreign policy decisions, but this is not the same thing as doubt about the capacity and readiness to act. After all, President Obama took the proverbial 3 a.m. phone call in authorizing the bin Laden raid, and we have the official photos, released in grainy black and white, to prove the point. On the other side, even though Mitt Romney has never directly had to handle a case of this kind, his evident maturity, steadiness, and long record of decision-making render it highly unlikely that anyone will charge him with being unprepared. 

In light of the absence of these matters, which made recent campaigns so bitter on a personal level—going right to questions of integrity and manliness—we are likely in certain respects to see a much cleaner race in 2012. Which isn’t to say that other elements related to personal attributes will not rise to the surface. 




t is difficult to identify the full list of special “talents and virtues” that have been proclaimed by, or on behalf of, candidates running for the presidency. One item that has certainly been important is military expertise and valor. Think of the number of candidates who have been lauded and promoted in public contests because of their military accomplishments (Washington, Jackson, William H. Harrison, Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower, to name only some) and others who have been celebrated for their demonstrations of valor (including Teddy Roosevelt, JFK, George H.W. Bush, and John McCain). Another quality is the virtue of being a “statesman,” a claim so elevated that it has been seriously made only on behalf of early presidents, such as Adams, Madison, and Monroe, who enjoyed the prestige of being Founding Fathers. Most candidates proclaiming possession of the political art are compelled to offer themselves on the more modest ground of being commendable politicians. This ambivalent talent describes the bulk of candidates who have run for the office, from Martin Van Buren to Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton to George W. Bush. These men were said to have practiced a worthy, if not obviously noble, calling, and to have pursued it well. 

Another talent or virtue is found in leaders of conviction, men admired for articulating a program or public philosophy. Included here are Abraham Lincoln (in 1860), William Jennings Bryan, George McGovern, Ronald Reagan (in 1980), and Barry Goldwater. Although the last three had extensive government service, their presidential campaigns made clear that being good politicians was not the primary talent touted on their behalf. These were men celebrated, at least by their partisans, for promoting a cause or set of ideas. 

Two other qualities or virtues have been put forward, only much less frequently: the skill of the businessman and the virtue of the man of intellect. In the category of businessman might be placed Herbert Hoover and Wendell Willkie, both of whom were prominent in the world of commerce and had held no previous elective office. Yet neither made conducting business his premier talent in quite the way that Mitt Romney has. Yes, Romney admits having been governor of an important state, but in speech after speech, he emphasizes the skill set honed in running a business. In one typical formulation, Romney said, “I spent 25 years balancing budgets, eliminating waste, and keeping as far away from government as was humanly possible.” His proficiency as a businessman is much broader than making money. It represents a capacity to build and to fix things when trouble arises, like the failing project for the Winter Olympics. Knowledge of how the economy works, Romney insists, is all the more critical during an anemic recovery, and the challenge of reducing the federal budget will demand the skill of the most tested of managers. There have been other presidential aspirants who have put the competencies of the businessman at or near the top of their qualifications, including Mitt’s father George Romney, Ross Perot, Donald Trump, and Herman Cain, but none became the nominee of a major party. We are about to find out if this quality can sell.

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