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Krieg Barrie

Not having what it takes

Politics | Neither Obama nor Romney seems to possess the full skill set to be a good president

Issue: "Inside Election 2012," Oct. 20, 2012

Want an evenhanded analysis of the presidential race as we head into its final days? Here’s one that came yesterday from a seasoned politician—a man who’s been a U.S. senator, a cabinet member, and still keeps his feet sensibly on the ground.

Voters, this man says, face an unattractive choice. They find on their ballot, on the one hand, a candidate who has failed miserably in his executive assignment as CEO of the country, but continues in spite of that failure to operate as a highly persuasive politician. Voters find, on the other hand, a man who appears skilled at running complex organizations, but seems repeatedly clumsy on the political side of things. But a president, it almost goes without saying, needs an ample supply on both sides of the skill set.

To validate that scenario, our analyst has to prove four assertions: (1) President Obama has done a poor job as the nation’s CEO. (2) President Obama has nonetheless been a capable politician. (3) Mitt Romney would do a good job as the nation’s chief executive. (4) Romney has not distinguished himself as a politician.

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Among the four assertions, the last three are for now only statements of opinion. But No. 1 is dramatically demonstrable. Anyone heading a major corporation (or university) with the management record President Obama brings to this election would long ago have been given his walking papers. The government he heads is hopelessly in debt—much more so than when he took office. Yet even in the face of such debt, his government has accelerated its out-of-balance annual spending. As head of the government, Obama has failed for the last three years even to propose a serious budget. 

As if that catalog of failure were not long enough, add to it the increasingly surly attitude toward America of several dozen countries abroad, along with the grumpy spirit millions of Americans here at home exhibit toward each other. Unemployment is high, median household income is down. Morale, as measured by polls, can’t get any traction.

None of those assertions, mind you, is based on a subjective judgment. None is related to opinions-may-differ issues like abortion, gay marriage, government-sponsored healthcare, or strict constructionism of the U.S. Constitution. We’re not including here the questionable habit of the current president of getting what he wants by executive order rather than by pursuing legislation through Congress.

The negatives are big enough. Big enough to call the current president a failure.

But what about the other three considerations? To what extent should they affect our voting?

The ability to answer No. 1 so emphatically profoundly affects our answers to Issues No. 2 and No. 4. Anyone who can pile up the negative record Obama suffers from and still run an even race must be some kind of politician. And anyone who can’t take better advantage of Obama’s vulnerabilities than Romney has managed so far can hardly think of himself as politically adept.

Which takes us back to No. 3. Buyer’s remorse, I predict, might well drive significant numbers of voters away from the man who promised “hope and change” but who has produced startlingly little to show for his pledge. “Hope and change! Well, fool me once or even fool me twice. But again? No way!”

But will such a negative impulse translate into enough votes in support of Romney? Or to put it another way, will the absence of a negative record—by itself—prove sufficient to propel a man with high promise into office? Clearly, the Romney record so far with Staples Office Supply, Bain Capital, the Olympics, or even the State of Massachusetts has failed to excite the electorate.

When I asked 10 people at random this past week what they considered to be Romney’s top achievement in the campaign so far, nine of the 10 pointed to his selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate. It was a startling unanimity—but sobering in part because only one person could point to anything else.

Take all that where you will. Use that as a template for your Nov. 6 choice, and no one can justly accuse you of being narrow minded or a single-issue voter.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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