On Tuesday, PBS’s Frontline debuted “The Choice 2012”—a compelling journey through the lives of the two candidates vying for the presidency. Using archival footage and photos, clips from past speeches and debates, and dozens of interviews with candidates’ family members, former classmates, friends, colleagues, rivals—and yes, even a few pundits—the two-hour documentary presents in painstaking detail the unique trajectories that propelled Barack Obama to the Oval Office, and Mitt Romney to governorship of Massachusetts and the Republican nomination for president.
At the end of the film, I was more convinced than ever that both Romney and Obama have what it takes to win the election this year, and less convinced than ever that either of them has what it takes to effectively govern.
Watching The Choice, I was struck by how two young men from fundamentally dissimilar backgrounds—Obama, a middle-class hipster with a taste for weed and Hawaiian shirts, and Romney a young Republican who wore a jacket and tie to counter-protests in support of the Vietnam War—faced the common struggle of leveraging profound intellect with a frustrating search for identity.
As a mixed-race child with a largely absent father, Obama entered the world disjointed and afloat; and as an unwilling transplant to Jakarta, Indonesia, he spent his early childhood struggling to find his place in a foreign land. Things weren’t much different at home. Shipped off to Hawaii to live with his grandparents, he became a reluctant symbol of multiculturalism in a school still plagued by a muted undercurrent of racism.
The perennial outsider, young “Barry” excelled at assimilating without ever really fitting in. At Occidental College he surrounded himself with a band of international students that included Pakistanis, Africans and at least one Serbian. As a graduate student at Columbia, the future president walked the streets of Harlem seeking a connection to a community with which he shared little beyond skin color. He eventually left the Big Apple, a former classmate tells us, without having developed a single lasting African-American friendship. By the time he got to Harvard in the late 1980s, Obama had learned to combine this sense of dislocation with an uncanny talent for public speaking to become what one friend called a “conciliator.” It’s a role he would carry with him into the White House.
Romney had the benefit of a strong father, but growing up in his shadow left young Mitt with little sense of where he stood on important issues. For years his political views were inextricably linked to the elder Romney; at Stanford he strongly supported the war in Vietnam, but by 1970 was he was echoing his father’s change of heart, telling a reporter that Americans had been “brainwashed” into believing the conflict was necessary. At an early age he developed a knack for shifting gears in the name of expediency, which wasn’t hard, because beyond his Mormonism there don’t appear to be many things he strongly believed in.
Like Obama, Romney attended Harvard, where, at his father’s suggestion, he obtained a joint law and business degree. In 1977, he joined Bain Consulting, and later helped found the company’s private equity spinoff Bain Capital. A consummate manager, former colleagues describe a man who rarely made a decision until every number added up. Like Obama, he carried this new identity into politics, where, in 1994, he made a calculated run for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts by checking the data and adopting a platform he felt was just right for the moderate commonwealth. It didn’t work that time, but in 2002, he tried again—this time for the governorship—winning as a “moderate” Republican with “progressive” views (which included “unequivocal” support for a woman’s right to choose). The next time he checked, the numbers told a different story, and so did he. (With the general election just weeks away, it seems he is re-calculating that approach as well.)
At the end of The Choice, we are presented with two men who spent years developing their respective identities: Obama the “bridge builder,” Romney the “numbers guy.” But do either of those identities embody what it takes to be a strong, successful leader? Unfortunately, history tells us, probably not.
Following the 2000 election, a group of psychologists working under the auspices of the Foundation for the Study of Personality in History, embarked on a detailed study of presidential personalities hoping to reveal what, if any, character traits were shared by the most successful commanders-in-chief. They determined that the “single most important trait to presidential success” is assertiveness, while being “cooperative” and easily swayed leads to less successful presidencies. In other words, things don’t typically work out too well for bridge builders.
But that doesn’t mean Romney would fare much better. The study found that some of the worst presidents were wishy-washy micromanagers who lacked conviction and leadership intuition. “Numbers guys” may do well in the board room, but they don’t often excel in the White House.
What we learn from The Choice is that Obama and Romney’s unique character traits are deeply rooted, the result of years of identity building, and are unlikely to change in four or eight years in the oval office. That’s something to consider when we enter the ballot box in November.