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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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What of President Obama? The dimension of the candidate’s special talent or virtue, as an independent factor, is less important in a reelection campaign. What counts most, after all, is a president’s demonstrated skills in office. Even so, it is hard to think of any president who presents so different a defining virtue between his two races as President Obama. In 2008, Obama was put forward as possessing a quality unique to him on the list of presidential candidates. He never cited his skill as a politician—he had only a scant record of service—and while he became known as a formidable orator, his rhetoric was not put primarily in the service of articulating a program or public philosophy. Barack Obama was celebrated as an inspirational leader, a charismatic in Max Weber’s sense of someone who gives birth to a politico-spiritual creed. Obama was a demigod, not only to many Americans, but to millions across the world. 

There is little chance of his offering this talent in the 2012 campaign. In a stunning metamorphosis, President Obama appears to have awoken one morning in November 2010 and looked down to discover that he had reverted fully to mortal form. And when he appeared in public, even in Europe, others could not fail to notice the very same transformation. The special virtue that his campaign will claim on his behalf this time is under intense debate these days. Some propose to cast him as an articulator of a public philosophy, though he has none that he wants to advance. Others prefer to cite his quality as an intellect or thinker, a talent that places him in a tiny group, composed of Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson, celebrated during their campaigns for their power of mind. After all, Barack Obama, like Woodrow Wilson, was a professor. 

In essence, the 2012 campaign is shaping up as a contest between the businessman and the intellectual. Obama’s references to the “1 percent” and to Wall Street are targeted at Mitt Romney, and Romney has replied in kind, “We have a president who I think is a nice guy, but he spent too much time at Harvard.” Mitt Romney also went to Harvard, though he spent most of his time on what the intellectuals consider to be the wrong side of the Charles, where the business school is found. Both men can claim an academic record of achievement, but where Mitt Romney immediately gravitated to the world of business, Obama spent much of his time in the academy, teaching law, and produced a literary memoir, Dreams from My Father. There is no indication that Mitt Romney, who was deeply formed by his father, is either interested in or would be capable of such intense introspection, unless it would be to prepare a 59-point account of the development of his paternal and managerial skills. By the same token, it is difficult to imagine Barack Obama as the shareholders’ choice to run Bain Capital.


Beyond their special talents or virtues, voters look at candidates as symbols of the things they want to see validated and praised. In Obama’s case, many Americans were attracted to his candidacy for representing the idea of inclusion and justice and for providing a sign of the near, yet not complete, triumph over the national shame of slavery and discrimination. Obama’s nomination was counted a huge “first,” a breakthrough of far greater significance than the previous firsts of a female and a Jewish vice presidential candidate. And to Hillary Clinton’s dismay, her anticipated first as a female presidential nominee had to cede primacy to Obama’s stronger claim as an African American. Obama was quick to acknowledge this achievement, joining with others in taking pride in the display of a more tolerant America. 

And what of Willard Romney? His nomination also marks an objective first, though the near total silence about this fact is deafening. Romney rarely calls attention to the fact that he is a Mormon. Besides revealing something of his personal style, this reticence reflects the recognition that this first is not being widely celebrated. Why this is so most likely has much to do with the disposition of those who distribute the awards for tolerance. These judges, deriving mostly from the intelligentsia, appear reluctant to celebrate Romney’s first for fear of diminishing the more prized achievement of President Obama, as if the nation were incapable of celebrating more than one feat of tolerance at a time; or, seeing the success of so many Mormons, they may consider that this group does not suffer sufficiently from duress to warrant the acknowledgment of a first, although group success did not deter the widespread celebration of Joseph Lieberman’s nomination for vice president in 2000. It might also be that many do not see Mormons as a genuine minority. Take away Mitt Romney’s religion, and he looks, walks, and talks every bit as much like the perfect WASP as that other non-Protestant nominee, John Kerry. The most likely explanation, however, is that the tolerance-anointers are not very excited about Mormons—they may even have friends who utter less than sensitive comments about them in private company. This last possibility has been artfully deflected by the creation of the impression that only conservative evangelicals oppose the election of a Mormon president. In fact, polls show that by far the greater opposition comes from Democrats. 

The symbolic dimension of the candidates also functions negatively, with many voting against the personal qualities they dislike or consider dishonorable. It has become commonplace to claim that many Americans despise the rich, especially when they think that their wealth comes from privilege rather than the striving of a self-made man. Mitt Romney is often portrayed in this light, though he fits the model imperfectly. He was born into affluence, but—unlike JFK or John Kerry—he acquired the greater part of his considerable fortune, thought to be in the neighborhood of $250 million, by his own efforts. This dislike of the rich, however, has been exaggerated; most Americans tolerate them reasonably well. Even on the left, and even in the case of persons born to privilege, like FDR or JFK, the rich can still easily pass if they make common cause with the party that professes suspicion of wealth. Their political stance is considered sufficient penance to absolve them of their crime, a tendency known in social science as Buffett’s Rule. 

The truly daunting challenge in America is for a rich person coming from affluence to make the case for wealth, which may be one reason why so few wealthy candidates for president have been willing to do so. Mitt Romney faces a test that a Republican of much lesser means would not encounter. He has no choice but to double down, defending private property not only in the abstract, but also in his own life. President Obama faces a similar problem, though it is less acute. Like Romney, he would no doubt find it easier to defend intellect if he were not so conspicuously an intellectual himself. Clearly, Joe Biden would have an easier time making the case. 

These two abilities—making money and displaying intellect—ought to be qualities worthy of universal praise, as ways in which Americans distinguish themselves and show their excellence. Of course, both qualities can be pursued in an unjustifiable way, as in the case of the moneymaker who proceeds dishonestly or by destructive means (although economic advance frequently involves creative destruction), or the thinker who parrots trendy ideas and mocks orthodoxies (although good ideas often challenge traditional beliefs). The regrettable fact today is that neither the intellectual nor the businessman much respects the other, and each seems to prefer discrediting his rival to joining in common recognition of the virtues of both. More important, there are votes to be had today in stirring up animosities. If it comes down to this, we can only hope the American people will have the good sense to be more repelled by the class-warfare rhetoric of the intellectuals than the enviable remuneration of the businessmen.

James W. Ceaser is professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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