Saturday, June 18, 2011

Political Leadership and Business Experience

Some Republicans question Barrack Obama’s qualifications for presidency because they say he “hasn’t done actual work,” meaning that he hasn’t run a business.  They usually fail to mention his 12 years as a law professor at the University of Chicago (apparently that wasn’t work), focusing derisively instead on his years as a community organizer in poor inner city areas of Chicago.  None of them bother to explain what the term “community organizing” means.  At its heart, community organizing is a quintessential democratic activity that involves generating durable power for a group of people within a community that is under-represented, allowing it to influence key decision-makers on a range of policy issues affecting their community. Republicans demean community organizing because they fail to value the people being helped by community organizing.  Barrack Obama’s activities in Chicago are now being replicated as President, except the community is on a much larger scale in his present job, the American people.

Two recent American public opinion polls of large cross-sections of socieity on the value placed on various occupations are revealing.  In the first, people were asked to indicate whether they considered various occupations as having prestige.  Depending on whom you ask, the definitions of occupational prestige can change.  Many equate job prestige in terms of money, while others base it on education, and a third group bases it on how much a person's job helps other people or society at large or some combination of the above.  Firefighter, scientist, doctor, nurse, military officer, teacher and police officer came out at the top of the list in that order.  Only 23% of those surveyed ranked “Business Executive” as having high prestige. College or university professor wasn’t included in that survey.  In the second study by the National Opinion Research Center, one of the oldest and most respected organizations of its type in the country, “Member of the President’s Cabinet”, “Physician” and “College Professor” came out at the top (1, 2 & 3) with “Business executives” ranking far down the list.

How important is a business background to successful American political leadership?   According to the Rasmussen Poll the most admired American presidents, in order, have been George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, John Adams, James Madison, Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower, none of whom came from business backgrounds.  Washington and Eisenhower were military heroes, as was JFK to a lesser degree.  TR was an outdoorsman, hunter and writer, and Reagan was a Hollywood actor, most of the rest were attorneys but had limited experience practicing law (though FDR worked in corporate law on Wall Street for a time), and were thrust into political leadership roles by circumstances or family history.

All of this leads me to wonder, “Why is the American news media so obsessed with the idea that successful business people have special qualifications for political leadership?”  It does not appear to be either the basis of how we rank America’s most successful past presidents, or public opinion about the value placed upon various occupations, that indicates business people are held in especially high esteem by most Americans.  What gives? Makes little sense. 

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