I focused on fundraising in my story yesterday about the President and Bain Capital, but I should double back and say that the actual argument Obama made is a fairly sound one on the merits. He basically said that the role of a President bears no resemblance to the role of a business leader, particularly a private equity or leveraged buyout specialist. One should have a concern on how to create jobs and the other has what amounts to a fiduciary duty to create profit. And those simply aren’t always compatible.
Let’s set aside for a moment how this pairs with reality, a topic I believe I’ve discussed about as much as humanly possible. On the content itself, this is an example of a good myth to bust. Over the last decade or so, we’ve had an endless amount of cant over the fact that government “should be run like a business” and that the best leader of such a government would be a businessman. You would think that the fact that the only President ever to have an MBA was George W. Bush would have punctured this axiom, but no, just four years after his departure in disgrace, Republicans nominate a businessman for President, someone running really entirely on the strength of that business experience. You could be forgiven for not knowing that Mitt Romney was once the Governor of Massachusetts; he certainly won’t tell you. So it really is a case of a businessman Presidential hopeful.
And it’s worth making the point, then, that the two jobs have fundamentally different foci. Steve Rattner makes this case today in the New York Times, but I think former Reagan budget director David Stockman made it better and more succinctly when he went off the reservation on Fox Business Channel:
Stockman: I don’t think Mitt Romney can legitimately say that he learned anything about how to create jobs in the LBO (leveraged buyout) business. The LBO business is about how to strip cash out of old, long-in-the-tooth companies and how to make short-term profits for…
Q: But he had so many new jobs created for all the jobs that were lost, it was a net gain, no?
Stockman: I don’t think so. All the jobs that he talks about came from Staples. That was a very early venture stage deal, that they got out of long before it got to its current size.
We have become inured to business titans being treated like masters of the universe, striding across the earth like a Homunculus, able to do anything they set their minds to. It’s worth having a corrective to this. Business acumen is often about stripping profits, and in this case that was really the only focus. People didn’t enter into the equation. The job of a responsible politician is a much more multi-faceted one. So while wankers on ABC can go on mournfully about the “death of the man who wanted to bring people together,” in reality, the President really just popped the balloon about the easy transference of skills from the business world to the political world. And regardless of everything else, the President is right about that. That’s why polls now show, correctly, that most people believe Mitt Romney was concerned about profits at Bain Capital, not jobs.
Moreover, Romney KNOWS he’s right about that. That’s why he wants to change the subject very quickly. You now have Romney arguing explicitly that the election is not about Bain Capital, as he tries to shift the focus back onto the economy. In other words, Romney is running on nothing, as a cipher, trying to make the election a referendum rather than a choice.
If the fallout of this is that we don’t revere business titans for their untrammeled ability to give the little people jobs anymore, it will be a positive step.