I attended a small dinner party last Friday evening, and politics came up. One young man at the party commented about the recent Washington Post/ABC News poll that determined just six percent of Americans are undecided about which presidential candidate they will vote for in November. Other news venues, including The New Yorker, have discussed how these are the very voters who don’t follow politics or make much effort to understand the issues. They are no doubt what we might call emotional voters, and they will play a huge part this year.
I am, quite frankly, hoping that Barack Obama can win the larger portion of those voters, even if it isn’t on a sophisticated understanding of the issues. I usually like to focus on issues, but today I want to talk about “character.”
Both of the presidential candidates this year are, of course, highly successful men. Both of them attended elite private preparatory schools, and both of them have degrees from the Harvard University Law School. Both of them have been involved in government for some time—Romney as governor of Massachusetts and Obama as a senator from Illinois.
Both Romney and Obama are also tall, stately men with pleasant demeanors. Many studies have shown that good looks are correlated with various types of success. More recent reports have noted that it’s a little more complicated than that, but that appearance does have an outsize effect. One of the most important factors, mentioned at the end of this Slate article, is that people prefer those who look like themselves. This may be one of the reasons Obama has encountered so much subtle as well as the not-so-subtle racism. A friend who (by strange circumstance) lives in the notoriously right-wing Villages recently created a satirical poster that said “Vote Romney. He’s the white guy,” based on the “totally racist vibe” he’d gotten from overhearing a neighbor at the mailbox complex near his home. But unless someone demonstrates that kind of fear of skin color, Romney and Obama are a toss-up looks-wise.
The other main component for emotional voters is, of course, “the character issue.” I can’t change someone’s incipient racism, but I do believe that Obama wins on character hands down. I believe he is a better fit with the American people in terms of both experience and values. Here’s why.
Wealth and Privilege
Mitt Romney was raised wealthy. His father was a CEO and governor of Michigan, and his mother was a housewife (though she did run for governor herself once, unsuccessfully). In other words, Romney’s life of expensive prep school and Ivy League grad school was taken for granted. He was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, was raised by a single mother with a career as an anthropologist, partly by a step-father, and by his grandparents. His absent father did not provide major financial support. His family believed in education (his mother continued to study and earn degrees through much of her short life), and so they made the necessary sacrifices for him to attend expensive schools. But Obama is much more like you and me when it comes to his background.
Both men may have worked for their accomplishments, but Romney started out with important connections in government and business, whereas Obama is a self-made man.
On Modern Women
Obama and Romney both appear to have solid marriages and to be devoted family men. But it is enormously important that Obama both had a working mother and has a wife with a career of her own. Romney’s mother was a lifelong housewife, and his wife is the same. He has no experience in a household where both partners work, where family and work have to find a balance. He has no experience in his intimate life of women who are his professional equal. In this day and age, when more than 70% of women are in the work force, Romney is out of touch. He has little understanding of the importance of women in the American workforce or the issues that families face when both partners work.
Multi-cultural vs. Insular
Obama, as everyone is well aware, is mixed race as opposed to the supposedly pure white of Romney. By 2008, the percentage of non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. had fallen to 66%, and it is predicted that this demographic shift will continue. Soon, “minorities” will not be minorities at all, and this is a valuable understanding for our leader to have.
Of course, a white president could very well be attuned to these demographic changes and understand them well. I certainly don’t want to say that a white person could not possibly lead the nation. But Romney is from a background of exclusive white privilege in which he has had little exposure to people different from himself. Even when he did a missionary stint for the Mormon church, he spent that time in France, not in Africa or Asia or a culturally or racially more distinct location.
Obama, on the other hand, not only had a black father, but one who was Kenyan. Though his father did not play much of a role in his life before dying, and he was brought up by his white mother and grandparents, Obama has spent time with his relatives in Kenya and has always been motivated to take an international perspective. His step-father was Indonesian, and Obama spent several years there as a child.
I know that some people have tried to use Obama’s international background against him, to claim it indicates he is not really American. But to me, Obama’s background reflects precisely the melting pot of American society and the complexities of many contemporary American families—families who have immigrated, as well as those who have “blended” through divorce and remarriage, those where the bond of family extends across distance and even borders.
We live in complex times where an understanding of international issues is key, and Obama has had an international perspective his entire life.
Early Work and Faith
There’s controversy over Romney’s time at Bain Capital, both in terms of his support for a financial system that is rigged and his continued involvement after he now claims to have resigned. That’s been discussed far and wide, and I will leave it be.
For me, it’s simpler than that. Mitt Romney’s main focus in his adult life has been on enriching himself. Period. Though he served as the governor of Massachusetts, he established his financial power well before that. He could turn to government because he had so many millions that he could quite easily live a lavish life on his overseas investments. Now he is focused on keeping laws and policies in place that will allow him and his super-rich cronies to amass more and more wealth unhindered by any semblance of fairness. His net worth is estimated at $190-250 million.
Obama, by contrast, is estimated to have a net worth around $3-11 million. Still a lot more than you or I have, but it is clear that his major goal in life is not to amass a personal fortune: When he won the Nobel Prize of $1.4 million in 2010, he donated it to various educational and cultural charities, hardly the behavior of someone trying to pad his accounts as much as possible. (Yes, Romney donates considerably to charity as well, but, again, that is in the context of his enormous existing wealth.)
In addition, if we compare Romney’s and Obama’s efforts in their formative years, Romney went to France as a missionary. Now, much missionary work is highly valuable—think, for instance, of the ways in which many religious organizations feed the hungry in drought- and war-torn sections of Africa or tend to hurricane victims in Haiti. But Romney’s missionary time was spent in a comfortable country primarily proselytizing. Even if you read a sympathetic account of the hard work, modest living conditions, and accident injuries of his time there, you can read between the lines to see that Romney’s focus on the poor was likely simply as potential converts, not as people who deserved material assistance.
A few things about this experience bother me. First, I don’t appreciate proselytizers. I do respect that it is a part of some faiths to do so, but that focus in life seems to me wrong for the leader of a religiously diverse nation. I would prefer to have a president who respects a variety of religions and doesn’t think that pushing one’s own on unreceptive people is a good choice. Second of all, if this represents Romney’s full exposure to social justice issues, as the sympathetic Washington Post article linked above implies, it’s woefully inadequate. During that time, Romney wasn’t necessarily trying to understand people’s problems; he was just trying to convert them to Mormonism.
In addition, contrary to stepping up and volunteering to enter the military, he even used his missionary work to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War. He actively sought (and received) deferments based on his missionary service. This implies to me that even though he makes this out to be a tough time that faced him with life’s realities, it was actually a way to skirt what could have been much worse for him personally.
And then, Romney’s professional career in the finance industry was clearly focused on amassing wealth.
Obama, of course, was a child when Vietnam raged, and he has also not served in the military, but the choices that he made as a young man were all about helping people on their own terms. Between college and law school, Obama worked for two public interest organizations, including New York PIRG. After relocating to Chicago, he worked as a community organizer for the Developing Communities Project (DCP), a Catholic-based (but non-proselytizing) organization that worked to set up job training programs, college-prep tutoring services, and to foster an understanding of tenants’ rights. Obama is not a Catholic, but has been a member of the Church of Christ and characterizes himself as a “progressive Christian,” yet he could cross denominational boundaries to work for shared values. He worked for the benefit of the poor in Chicago very directly for three years.
When Obama returned to school to earn his law degree, he maintained an involvement in organizing and even conceived of his degree as an avenue for more effectively doing so. After his graduation, he taught law on issues such as due process and voting rights. He also grew increasingly active in local politics.
Clearly, Obama was ambitious from the beginning, and clearly he was ambitious because he wanted to help people less fortunate than he had become. It is this generosity of spirit and public-mindedness that I so respect in Obama, even when I don’t agree with particular decisions he makes. I know that some people see in Mitt Romney’s financial success something they hope to emulate, a sign that he can balance the books and manage the money. I might give that some credence, except that Romney doesn’t seem particularly interested in anyone’s bottom line but his own. He seems to me dedicated only to the benefit of himself and those very similar to him.
His recent selection of Paul Ryan as a running mate means that most surely, Romney’s intentions as president are to work for a very narrow and selective public good. When Ryan released his proposed budget in March, numerous religious leaders from a variety of faiths weighed in that is “immoral” in its abandonment of the poor. This is the one of numerous candidates that Romney has chosen as running mate.
This issue, of course, borders on policy whereas I promised to focus on character, but it is a clear indicator of how character does in fact often affect policy. Romney is a man who values his own personal wealth first and foremost; Obama is a man of the people who works to help them.
Both Obama and Romney have been criticized for certain personal behavior in their youths. To me their indiscretions and their own later commentary reveal men of two very different moral capacities.
Obama smoked pot, drank in excess, and even tried cocaine while he was in high school and college. As NORML points out, it is difficult to get any accurate information about drug use in this country, but even the probably way underestimated numbers indicate that 41% of the population has smoked pot in their lifetimes. I can say with certainty that there were very few students I went to college with who didn’t try it. So, Obama is quite average in this regard.
He has also gone on to state his regret for his behavior and to give a self-aware analysis of what drove his use of drugs. Clearly, as with the case of Olympic champion Michael Phelps, he moved on from that phase in his life, did not become addicted, and went on to achieve a great deal.
It is important to me that Obama disclosed this himself, very early on in his own books, and that he has made it clear that such drug use was a “mistake” and no longer part of his life. No one had to uncover it in an expose because Obama humbly recognized it as an issue.
Romney has not so clearly disavowed his personal indiscretions, which came in the form of bullying during high school and animal abuse as an adult. Assault and animal cruelty are both also currently illegal, but Romney has not admitted any real problem with his behavior in either case. When a conservative publication like Forbes notes that Romney’s response shows a lack of empathy even today, then you know that it is indeed a problem. That Romney claims not to remember the bullying incident when it was cruel enough that five others remember it clearly, and then characterizes it as part of his pattern of high school “hijinks,” there’s an indication that Romney is a man who breezes through life with no idea of the consequences of his actions and decisions on other people.
Much less other creatures. Even those he has taken into his family as pets and that he would ostensibly have some affection or sense of responsibility for. On the Dogs Against Romney website, there is an extensive archive of commentary about the most notorious cases and other issues involved with how the Romneys have abused their animals. Unforgettable is the one in which the Romneys strapped their Irish Setter’s open kennel to the roof of their car for a 12-hour drive. The dog became sick and defecated all over itself and the roof of the car—Romney’s reaction was to hose the dog and the car down, and to continue on in the same mode. As the Rachel Maddow video below points out, this is both cruel and illegal. Romney doesn’t care.
This article on Politicker gives an overview of the case, noting that the Romneys have been added to two national animal abuser databases, and this one reveals even more about their lies and attitudes. First, the Romneys seem to go through dogs like caviar—they give them away, they don’t responsibly fence them, and they seem to have no regrets. Romney’s only reason for saying that he would not strap a dog to the roof of the car again is because the episode has received so much attention. In other words, he still insists that he did nothing wrong whatsoever in torturing the family pet rather than allowing it to ride in the car along with the children.
In a more recent incident, Ann Romney was sued for fraud after selling an over-drugged horse. The case was settled out of court, but indications are that the Romneys knew the horse was lame, and that Ann Romney continued to ride it for years with a debilitating and painful condition.
These animal abuse stories move into Romney’s adult years. He can’t even excuse them with claims of youthful ignorance, and so he doesn’t bother to even apologize. He is not the least bit regretful for breaking laws or causing pain and distress to living beings.
The Rachel Maddow video moves from the bullying and dog issues on to Romney’s laughing about his father’s decision to move jobs from Michigan to Wisconsin. She points out very well that Romney seems completely oblivious to the pain of these lost jobs. But that is getting into policy issues, and I’ll stop on that border again.
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All I ask is that if you know anyone who is undecided in terms of this election, give them some information. If you can talk policy with them, great. But if you can’t, go right ahead and talk about character. Obama wins hands down.