Michael, thanks for reminding us of President Obama’s incredibly thin pre-election resume. (As I looked at those bullet points, I thought: “Half the writers on the Corner could assemble a comparable or superior list of accomplishments, and the other half are well on their way.”) If our careers and life experiences shape our approach to life and to leadership, it’s worth comparing Barack Obama’s to Mitt Romney’s.
In 2007, as Obama emerged as a serious challenger to Hillary Clinton, I kept having an eery sense of deja vu. Hearing his rhetoric, I was transported back to Harvard Law School in the early 1990s, or back to Cornell Law School (where I taught from 1999 to 2001). He sounded like a more politically-gifted version of the academic activists that saturate places like Cambridge and Ithaca. They’re always “fighting” for or against this or that person or cause. They rarely lead anything other than amorphous (and temporary) “movements,” and their activism frequently involves fixating on one or more villains or discrete problems as stand-ins for much larger and complex social and economic forces. (Harvard has a diversity problem? Attack the liberal Dean and support more-radical faculty. A local neighborhood has an unemployment problem? Get a local job center. Deficit problem? Propose the Buffet Rule.)
To be clear, I’m not arguing that discrete acts of activism — properly-channelled — don’t have value. In fact, that’s been a big chunk of my career as conservative lawyer: taking individual cases to achieve individual justice while moving the constitutional ball (just a bit) toward the originalist goalposts. But activism — with all its energy and rhetoric — can often be deceptive. Small victories assume outsized importance and, in fighting for the small victories, we lose perspective. Exhibit A of this mindset? Our president publicly confronts a gas-price crisis in large part by going after “tax breaks for oil companies” with a prophet’s zeal. No one in his right mind thinks that making oil companies pay more taxes will lower prices at the pump, yet here we are, fighting over the finer points of tax loopholes just as we’re struggling to provide enough energy to the world’s largest economy. But that’s what activists do.
Let’s look, by contrast, at Mitt Romney’s resume. After similar educational backgrounds, Romney’s career path diverged sharply. He nurtured, built, and led large institutions — taking Bain Capital from a startup to more than $4 billion under management, rescuing the Salt Lake City Olympics from corruption and financial ruin, and restoring fiscal health (and budget surpluses) to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. At no point did community organizer Obama, law lecturer Obama, State Senator Obama, or even one-partial-term U.S. Senator Obama face any leadership challenges like Mitt Romney did relatively early in his business career.
Which of these career paths better prepares a man to command a 2 million strong military, play a principal role in history’s largest economy, and manage a remarkably diverse coalition of friends and allies? The answer’s fairly obvious, and the results of the last three years merely emphasize that answer. Is a pork-laden, bloated stimulus an effective response to an economic downturn? Is pass-the-bill-then-read-the-bill Obamacare an effective response to an inefficient and expensive health-care market?
Activists are, however, good communicators. And the best activists are great communicators. One of the core challenges of the next seven months will be piercing a tremendous wall of rhetoric to show that the contest is between one man who wasn’t prepared to lead (and failed) and another man who has led, is prepared to lead again, and will succeed.