You don’t know what’s goin’ on,
you’ve been away for far too long
You can’t come back and think you are still mine
You’re out of touch, my baby, my poor discarded baby I said,
“Baby, baby, baby, you’re out of time”
The Rolling Stones, “Out of Time”
Both the Obama and Romney campaigns have been accusing each other of being out of touch. It’s an enduring and common ploy. Many will remember the canard that the elder Bush was so out of touch he had never seen a supermarket scanner.
As Politico reported on May 24, the President had this to say about Romney:
There was a woman in Iowa who shared her story of financial struggles, and he gave her an answer right out of an economic textbook. He said, “Our productivity equals our income.” And the notion was that somehow the reason people can’t pay their bills is because they’re not working hard enough. If they got more productive, suddenly their incomes would go up. Well, those of us who’ve spent time in the real world — (laughter) — know that the problem isn’t that the American people aren’t productive enough — you’ve been working harder than ever. The challenge we face right now, and the challenge we’ve faced for over a decade, is that harder work has not led to higher incomes, and bigger profits at the top haven’t led to better jobs.
The laughter in the report may have been at Romney, but outside the world inhabited by the President’s most steadfast supporters, world, in the world of work, trade and productive investment, the laughter was surely directed at the President. Pundits and bloggers were quick to point to Mr. Obama’s lack of private sector experience, and rather abbreviated curriculum vitae in general.
But, is this fair?
While he misunderstood the thrust of Romney’s remarks, the President was on to something: Clearly, Romney was speaking in macroeconomic terms, but macroeconomics may not be the way to connect with town hall listeners.
His campaign makes much of his private sector experience, but a quick review of modern American presidential politics will show that such experience as many of our presidents have had was not in the manufacturing, retail and service jobs common to the work experience of most Americans.
Politicians typically spend a lot of time in politics.
In my lifetime, there was Harry Truman, artilleryman and failed haberdasher, yes, but for most of his life a mid-level functionary in county and state government. Ike was a soldier, and while his military successes required a high degree of organizational and executive skills, the Army isn’t the private sector.
As to JFK, the only job I can find him in outside of politics was a brief stint as a correspondent for the Hearst Chain, William Randolph Heart and Joe Kennedy being good buds. From 1947 on, it was politics for JFK. LBJ taught school for a bit, and entered politics.
Nixon’s private sector experience was in private law practice, between his 1937 graduation from Duke and a short time as an Attorney for U.S. Office of Emergency Management, 1942, before he joined the Navy in the same year. He returned briefly to the law before his 1946 election to Congress, and again during his time in the wilderness after the 1960 election, this time a high priced New York layer rather than a storefront practice in Yorba Linda. Gerald Ford, too, practiced law for a short time before his wartime Navy service, and for a couple of years before he ran for Congress in 1946. And there he stayed.
Many jests were made at the expense of Carter, the peanut farmer, but he was good at it, taking a modest inheritance and turning it in to a successful concern. Reagan as a radio station announcer, actor and union leader can be said to have worked in the private sector, but not the areas familiar to most Americans. Yet his background, from a family of always modest means as his father drank and failed again and again, was the well spring for his ability to be supremely in touch, as his most critical detractors did and do acknowledge, including President Obama himself.
The first Bush worked in Texas oil and gas for a number of years. Bill Clinton worked some part time jobs in college, but was never in the private sector after graduation. The second Bush also worked – with far less success than his father – in the Texas oil and gas industry before entering politics, first working for his father’s campaign, then on his own.
FDR, a lawyer without a law degree, having passed the bar exam before he had finished his studies, practiced law for around two years before entering politics. So, we have to go back to Herbert Hoover to find a big time businessman like Romney in the White House. And you might ask, how did that work out? (Many argue that Hoover’s understanding of markets was defective, but that’s too large a topic for this piece)
Thus, presidents typically have had long political careers, with their private sector experience generally brief, and not in jobs accessible to most people. Nor is there any correlation in background to success or failure. Highly educated and successful farmer Carter is remembered as a failure, while Reagan, with his degree from an obscure college and second tier acting roles is considered a success.
This brings us to the incumbent. The president held a summer job at Baskin and Robbins, which might have taught him a lesson on consumer choice that he seems to have missed. Keith Koffler, of whitehousedossier.com put together this handy chart of Obama’s “real world experience.”
At first, I thought Mr Koffler was being kind in counting community organizing as “real world experience.” I would have included only the stint at Business International Group, as it is the only for profit group employing Mr. Obama after his Baskin and Robbins gig.
But it occurs to me that Koffler is right. The real world is the world we live in and we don’t all live in the same ones; some overlap, some may as well be separated by interstellar distances. The issue goes back to being in touch: to connect, the candidate must know the worlds of those whose votes he needs.
This is essential not only to electoral success, but to success in office. In political terms, a successful presidency is defined ultimately by popular perception. Historians, economists, ideologues and partisans will debate and revise for decades, but the people’s definition of success remains remarkably consistent over time. Good Presidents, in tribal memory, are those who connected with the American people and addressed what they saw as their needs at the time.
Hoover will forever be a cynosure for failure, while the patrician and autocratic FDR is still beloved of memory. Truman, JFK and LBJ were successful in their connection for a time; dour Nixon managed for a while, connecting with the slightly larger fraction of the electorate that didn’t care for peace marches. The intelligent, avuncular and gifted athlete Gerald Ford is remembered as an incompetent boob. Carter’s failure to connect, and his successor’s mastery of the art, are both legend. The Bushes too managed for while, but never neared Regan’s bar, while one can only think that Clinton must have been his secret disciple. His presidency is recalled with longing by a broad swath of the electorate well across party lines; Clinton could travel with ease the disparate worlds of the American electorate.
President Obama seemed a rising master in 2008, but in his execution has faltered. It may be too late for him to regain the worlds he has relinquished in the single-minded pursuit of his beliefs, and it remains for Romney to seize those he has abandoned.