You Can’t Tell a Candidate by the Resumé

As the US presidential campaign inches closer to Election Day, a few more people are paying attention, and listening to the alleged issues. Among the campaign's sillier questions is whether the ideal president ought to have a “business” background.

On this point, Mitt Romney is always cited as potentially the first businessman-president since Herbert Hoover. This contention overlooks our two recent oil-business presidents, and it snubs Harry S Truman, who took stabs at several businesses. Truman's most famous enterprise was a Kansas City haberdashery — although it went belly-up in two years. Truman's clothing store was just as much a “business” as Hoover's mining empire and Romney's career as a private-equity barracuda.

In the end, Truman the lousy businessman, proved an admirable president. On the other hand, while George W. Bush's bumbling career in the Texas oilfields matched Truman's mercantile misadventures in Missouri, all we got from that was a president lousier than he was an oilman.

There is no trend here.

Since Hoover, five eventual presidents were lawyers turned politicians, starting with FDR, including a string of three in a row — JFK, LBJ, Tricky Dick — and ending with Bill Clinton. Also: two oilmen, a general, a peanut farmer, Harry the haberdasher, a community organizer, and an actor who never got the girl at the end of the movie.

Still with no trend evident, the answer to the silly question is: Don't rely on a resumé to handicap the presidency. Nor does a CV indicate how a guy will perform in office. Who, after all, would have expected our most pacifist president, Woodrow Wilson, to lead the nation into World War I? Or Richard Nixon, the pinko-baiting blacklister of the 1940s, to usher Red China back into respectability?

We get a true measure of our leaders only in retrospect. Looking back, we see that neither Truman nor Lyndon Johnson were as bad as we thought on their last day in office. On the other hand, the accomplishments of John F. Kennedy (because of his aborted potential) and Ronald Reagan (whose lingering legacy is trickle-down economics) seem destined to keep diminishing over time.

Reagan, however, had a significance that transcends laws, treaties and policies. He was the rare transformational president who — largely by force of his personality — virtually reversed the magnetic field of American politics.

One of my pet theories is that the national political conversation flows, for decades, in one direction or the other. For example, after Reconstruction, the national discourse remained reliably conservative for about 50 years. Despite populist uprisings, a Socialist movement among laborers, and Progressives like Teddy Roosevelt who tried to rein in the power of Big Money, most Americans recognized a status quo in which a small, moneyed aristocracy called the shots in society and politics. This ruling class held sway tenaciously until finally discrediting itself, spectacularly, in the Crash of '29.

However, the oligarchy's collapse didn't guarantee the liberal epoch that followed. In places like Germany and Italy, a disgraced conservative elite gave way to an even more conservative elite who used populism as pretext for tyranny. America's next leader was also populist, but genuinely so. Franklin D. Roosevelt undertook a program of redistributing political power downward and outward, while carrying on a conversation — really a monologue — with the American people that sold his radical program. FDR's charm didn't turn the United States into a broadly liberal nation overnight. But the New Deal, the Allied victory in World War II, and post-war programs like the Marshall Plan and the GI Bill reinforced a consensus among Americans that they could trust government to hear their voices and to do the right thing, most of the time.

This liberal tide didn't begin to ebb until the post-Vietnam War crises that marked the 1970s. Even then, the flow might not have turned conservative without the guidance, charisma, and rhetorical gifts of Reagan, FDR's alter ego.

Reagan steered America's conversation sharply to the right, and it has remained conservative ever since, almost drowning Bill Clinton in the process. Barack Obama's sudden rise in 2008 suggested to many observers that a progressive reversal might be imminent. Obama certainly fulfilled one prerequisite. His eloquence and likeability are in the same class with FDR and the Gipper.

Nevertheless, as the last four years demonstrate, a 180-degree shift in the political voice of 300 million Americans is no small feat. These magnetic-field reversals erupt generations apart and take more than a decade to truly manifest. It's conceivable that the 2012 election — if Obama wins — might be seen, years from now, as the tipping point of such a change.

Years from now, we'll know for sure.

8 comments on “You Can’t Tell a Candidate by the Resumé

  1. Barbara Jorgensen
    September 18, 2012

    Interesting perspective on reputation vs. reality. I have mixed feelings on a businessman as president. I'm not sure it makes any difference as you point out. I'd rather judge a candidate on his/her record. The only problem here is the accusations of flip-flopping…candidates actually change thir minds?! Does anyone hold the same opinions on everything that they did 10, 20 or 30 years ago? I don't, and I'd like to think I have learned through experience.

  2. bolaji ojo
    September 18, 2012

    If only a country is a business. It is not. A nation goes to war, defends borders and runs the risk of huge deficits in order to protect its citizens. A nation also cannot just operate on the basis of profit and loss.  So, the idea that you should get someone with business experience to run the nation is idiotic. What a nation needs is someone with the capability to attract and appoint people with the right expertise to all positions where they can do their best.

    If we need a businessman during periods of economic crisis, I guess we would need a general in time of war and a physician during times of medical emergencies or virus outbreak. In other words, we need Captain America.

  3. _hm
    September 18, 2012

    Both resumes and candidates are quite great. But challenge to them is quite huge. We wish the winner do the best and help the great democracy.


  4. Ariella
    September 18, 2012

    @Bolaji, Yes, it's not just about the economy, as a slogan of a few elections back had it. There are many other serious issues that come with the presidency. 

  5. wskehr
    September 18, 2012

    The president has more access to talented people to get advice from than anyone else.  The president also has more work and more people this deligate this work to than anyone else.  To a large extent a strong business or legal background is less important than the ability to find the right people to work with the president.

  6. bolaji ojo
    September 19, 2012

    wskehr, I absolutely agree. What the best leaders have is the ability to build great teams by carefully selecting technocrats who are fantastic in managing each sector of government. We expect the president to perform miracles while in office — and they make these kind of promises while running for office — but without a good supportive team they will fail.

    I think the same applies in government. A CEO is just expected to understand his business and that's good but it is better if he is able to pick great lieutenants, lead and motivate them.

  7. Adeniji Kayode
    September 19, 2012

    You are right on that,Wskehr, but then the responsibility still lies with the president to be able to select the right people anomg some many available people.

  8. Wale Bakare
    September 20, 2012

    Yeah, I think candidate with track-able records who would not renege on promises to citizens should get the mandate.

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