Amid all of the commentary this week on what the mayor of the 68th biggest city in the country thinks of the Obama’s campaign attacks on Bain Capital (Democratic blowback!), I’ve seen little analysis of what Obama is actually up to with his critique of Romney. If you take a look at what Obama is actually saying, he’s not only attacking Romney for the infelicitous particulars of private equity, he is more broadly suggesting that Romney’s background as a businessman—the chief asset Romney is running on—does not necessarily translate into being a good president. Obama first laid out this case in comments Monday in Chicago, but he went back at it in his speech Thursday in Des Moines:
“The main goal of a financial firm like Gov. Romney’s is not to create jobs.... Their main goal is to create wealth for themselves and their investors,” Obama told a crowd of nearly 2000 on the fairgrounds.
“Now that may be the job of someone who’s engaged in corporate buyouts. That’s fine. But that’s not the job of a president. That’s not the president’s job. There may be value for that kind of experience but it’s not in the White House."
This critique could be applied against just about any businessman running for elected office—most companies, after all, seek as their main goal “to create wealth for themselves and their investors.” What’s Obama up to here? He’s not just attacking weak spot within Romney’s business resume, the layoffs and bankruptcies, he’s attacking it at its strongest point, Romney’s success at “creating wealth” for himself and his investors. One might view this as the Karl Rove approach—attacking someone’s strongest suit, as Rove did with John Kerry’s Vietnam service. But I suspect there’s more to it than that. The Obama team surely is aware that while plenty of businessmen have won elected office running on the basis of their private sector success (the Senate is full of ’em, from Mark Warner to Ron Johnson), the country has had awfully few businessmen elected president. Unless you count the baseball team owner and failed oilman George W. Bush or the peanut farmer Jimmy Carter, you have to go all the way back to Herbert Hoover, and we all know how that worked out. It’s an admittedly small sample, presidential election winners of modern times, but it may well be that there is something about having a pure businessman in the Oval Office that rubs voters the wrong way (as even conservative Byron York recently argued). Regardless, Obama certainly seems to be banking on that. His team may well be aware that, as I found speaking with voters a few months ago, many Americans may chalk up the unpleasant elements of Bain Capital's modus operandi to simply being part of "what it takes to succeed in business." And if that's the case, then it may be necessary for Chicago to take on the value of business, more broadly, as a preparation for leading the country.
It’s quite striking, really—Obama and Romney are running on entirely opposite premises of what will appeal to voters, with one candidate proudly proclaiming an identity that the other candidate is just as eager to pin onto him. It’s hard to think of a starker contrast between the two candidates—well, other than that only one of them spent his high school years “intercepting” joints.
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