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Jesse Larner Headshot

Romney, Obama, and Personal History

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The radical right loves to insist that Barack Obama's life history left him gravely unqualified to become president. When the ideologues really want to insult him, they refer to Obama, with equal parts bitterness and contempt, as "our community organizer president."

This has always puzzled me. What do community organizers do? They talk to people who lack information, services, political influence. They help these people to determine their needs and the best course of action to attain their goals. They find resources, build alliances. They champion the powerless and show them how to gain the political respect they need to improve their neighborhoods. They secure finances for local economic development, and work to expand access to economic opportunity for those who are not born to it.

What could possibly be a better preparation for the presidency?

The experience of being embedded in a community shapes one's character and outlook, too. So does the experience of working only for personal gain. The Republicans seem to think that Mitt Romney's personal history better prepares him for the office. Romney! Because he made hundreds of millions of dollars in business. He created jobs!

But what did Romney do, really? He scooped up failing businesses and looted them. If they did well, Romney and his company, Bain Capital, did well; if the businesses went bankrupt and thousands of people lost their jobs, Romney and Bain still did well. Romney's goals were to create shareholder value and to get rich. Nothing could have been further from his mind than creating jobs and helping people. I don't think he was opposed to those things, but if they came about, it was incidental and accidental. And that's fine, I suppose; Romney's soul is not my concern. But it doesn't mean he can fix the economy, and it's not a qualification for the presidency.

There's a bigger picture here, too. Romney's activities probably had very little net effect on jobs; but he was in the vanguard of changing the American economy from one in which working- and middle-class people could make decent wages, to one in which even upper-middle-class people often struggle to make ends meet, often have to sacrifice health insurance or education for their children in order to make the rent or the mortgage. Romney was in important player in leading the "shareholder value" revolution, to the detriment of any other kind of values.

Republicans, of course, would counter that this doesn't matter. If Mitt destroyed jobs and lives, made many working people miserable on his way to those hundreds of millions, all the better: it's the creative destruction of capitalism. America has a stronger economy because of what he did, and if you profited less than your boss, you still profited; and if you didn't profit, you should work harder; and if you lost your job, get off your duff and build a company yourself! But don't complain about Mitt's car elevators and dressage horses, purchased with that part of the value of your own labor that Mitt and people like him were able to legally extract. That's the bitter politics of envy. It's class warfare!

Of course they say this. As a matter of both ideological justification and psychological defense, right-wingers have to believe -- or pretend to believe -- that inequality is non-zero-sum, and that, under unrestricted market conditions, everyone gets what he deserves. Mitt Romney probably sincerely believes this.

But it's not as if he played by the rules he endorses. Romney was perfectly happy to exploit the public welfare, avoiding pure market constraints, as he accumulated his hundreds of millions. Economic freedom? For me, not for thee. Just as he is able to present offshore tax shelters as some sort of patriotic act (don't you want a president who is smart about his money?) he doubtless thinks that it is good business practice to screw the taxpayers. Bloomberg News recently ran a piece on how Romney and Bain privatized gains and socialized losses. When you feel yourself entitled to power and wealth, it's easy to see your own interests as a social imperative.

And you'll be able to justify anything. Romney is not an economic ignoramus. He undoubtedly knows the importance of Keynesian spending in an economic downtown, and has some sense of what Obama's stimulus accomplished. But he's been captured by the know-nothing Tea Partiers, themselves the tools of the Koch brothers and cynical right-wing social engineering outfits like FreedomWorks. Romney's ambitions have led him to embrace the disastrous, sadistic Paul Ryan budget proposals, the same tired litany of privilege for the privileged, wealth for the wealthy, rules-for-the-poor-and-no-rules-for-the-rich that was such a social tonic under George W. Bush. Romney, with Ryan, now endorses market-driven healthcare. Massive tax cuts for the rich, paid for with tax increases on the working poor and middle class. Reduced regulation of financial institutions. Union-busting. The abandonment of public education. The abandonment of legal aid to the poor. Yet it's the Democrats who are waging class warfare, Romney and Ryan tell us.

Romney and Ryan know, in accordance with their own class identification, that what they propose is for our own good! Their interests are ours, ours theirs. The arrogance is really quite extraordinary. Recently Mitt told members of the NAACP, an audience of people who had worked hard in support of the Affordable Healthcare Act, that "Obamacare" was not in their own best interests. He knew better than they. Mitt -- who has never in his life had to deal with being dropped from insurance coverage, never in his life had to prioritize shelter or healthcare, never in his life had to beg services in the emergency room because he couldn't afford a doctor for himself or his family, never in his life had to watch a loved one waste away because treatment was too expensive -- Mitt thought that he knew better than all those deluded black folk. It's kind of mind-boggling. Yet Romney's supporters dare to accuse the NAACP of disrespect, for crying out loud, because the audience booed this line.

This is why personal history really matters. Obama's personal narrative is a story of struggle, struggle with his economic position, his education, his family history, his identity. He earned what he got, and along the way he was forced by circumstance to empathize with others, to try to understand their life situations, to question his own positions. Romney's personal narrative is a story of privilege. He was given everything he needed to succeed on his own terms. He apparently never questioned a thing. What is good for him, and for his class, is good for everyone. In the words of the cartoon executioner: "Stop sniveling! I've shot lots of people. It doesn't hurt!"

Some of us don't think that tax cuts for the rich create jobs. We don't accept that the financial industry should be more lightly regulated. We don't agree that we're better off when unions are crushed, giving the rich and powerful more control over our lives. We see gross inequality as a sign that markets are imperfect, not infallible.

We don't believe that what's good for Romney and the Koch brothers is good for us.

We'll be voting for the community organizer.