Perspective vs. Experience: A Presidential Conversation

So I published a post titled A Lack of Perspective on Monday about why I believe that Mitt Romney shouldn’t be president because he can’t understand what it’s like to be poor. That’s dumbing it down a bit, but that’s the general premise.

In response, one of my favorite Facebook critics, Mark Ashley*, asked me whether I really believed that someone had to be poor to understand what poverty is and stated that a person’s actual policies show a lot more about a politician than their life experiences.

I’ll restate his argument here:

Had this been written in 2004, it would have been a great argument against John Kerry. Of course, the alternative was Bush, who also came from wealth, but you have effectively disqualified the likes of JFK, FDR, and a lot of other presidents.

The idea generally that one ought to have been poor at one time to be a good political leader seems odd to me. How poor is poor? Does one’s family have to have begged at one time to qualify? Been on government assistance? Or is simply struggling to make ends meet enough? I’m not being facetious in asking these questions, and I am well acquainted with living below the poverty line. My expectation is that any person running for president would be long past poverty–nobody is interested in electing a person who has never been successful in life–and many up-from-the-bootstrap people are not particularly sympathetic to the poor either.

Ultimately, there are a lot of people who have been poor whom I’d not trust to run an office lottery pool, let alone the country, and there are a lot who have been rich about whom I’d say the same. Likewise, many who have been poor and who have never been poor have genuinely good perspectives on poverty and even sometimes good policy proposals. What matters more is how a person has processed those life experiences and what a person chooses to do with them.

I’m not about to offer any defense of Romney, and I do think that life experiences matter, but I am skeptical of the notion that someone has to be/have been [poor, rich, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, female, male, etc.] in order to empathize with, represent, and lead people who fall into those categories. Show me a person’s actual policies. That, to me, is much more revealing of how a politician thinks.

First, let me address the idea that this argument would have disqualified JFK, FDR, and a lot of other presidents. On its face, that’s a valid argument, but I believe that there is one important factor that makes this argument moot:

Thanks to Mother Jones for the graph

The income equality gap is higher now than it has been at any time since the Great Depression.

When FDR came to power, despite coming from old New York money, he set out New Deal Legislation, got us through World War II (I am not going to debate the wisdom of either New Deal legislation or his policy decisions in WWII right now) and worked with civil rights organizations like the NAACP. Point being: He wanted to help.

On to JFK. Was he wealthy? Yes. Was he from a wealthy family? Great. But he seemed to understand the problems and priorities of this country in a way that Romney does not. (Kennedy also wasn’t a draft dodger, but that’s another kettle of fish.) Kennedy genuinely wanted to better the lives of his countrymen. I can’t say I’ve seen any indication of that from Romney since his campaign began.

When Mark says “The idea generally that one ought to have been poor at one time to be a good political leader seems odd to me,” I have to say that it’s not to me. He goes on to say that “My expectation is that any person running for president would be long past poverty” and that “there are a lot of people who have been poor whom I’d not trust to run an office lottery pool, let alone the country, and there are a lot who have been rich about whom I’d say the same.”

Does my argument come down to attitude and life experience as much as it does money? Absolutely. But there’s such a huge gap now between rich and poor that I really feel that Romney and other people in his income bracket just simply don’t get it. He has not ever had to worry about a single thing I do on a daily basis.  And his comments about the 47% being “dependent on government” and that a middle class income is “$200,000 to $250,000,” just for a few examples, show how out of touch he truly is.

This baffles me, considering healthcare and gay marriage in Massachusetts, but I don’t trust that he’ll revert back to being a ‘progressive moderate’ once he takes office.

Obama came up from relatively nothing. His mom, while educated, was not rich. He lived in parts of the world where not many people are rich by anyone’s standards. He went to prep school on scholarship and then to Columbia and Harvard the same way most people in my income bracket would, by shelling out for student loans. He worked as a community organizer in Chicago and organized African-American voter drives.

I could go on and on, but my point is that he gets it. He gets what my problems are. He’s worried about money. He’s had to pay off student loans. He’s worried about health care for his family. He’s experienced the problems of being a minority in this country. And the policies that he’s tried to implement (again, the merits of those are a different argument) reflect that.

So while, yes, a lot of it comes down to empathy and policy, I don’t believe Romney has enough of either to lead our country.

Maybe, until the income gap goes down to levels that make sense, we should only allow people who came up from nothing to run. It might help.

*Mark Ashley is a buddy of mine who is also working to be tenured at a university and so doesn’t want his name associated with silly political blogs at this time. Due to his needing to use a pseudonym and then coming up with one as silly as Mark Ashley, I am dubbing him Professor Who, Master of Mystery. (Feel free to insert a booming voice worthy of that title here.) Prof. Who for short. You’ll be seeing a lot more of him, as he’s been set into a contract to write me 8 blog posts by the end of the year.


One thought on “Perspective vs. Experience: A Presidential Conversation

  1. Mark Ashley

    For what it is worth, Alicia, as much as people think that defining $200,000-250,000 as “middle class” is out of touch, it’s actually restoring the historical definition of middle class. I’m not sure that Romney recognizes he is doing this–I’d more likely bet that he is oblivious–but about a century ago, the definition of middle class was that a household have a home of at least a certain size (I forget precisely how big) and that they have at least two servants. Well, servants have kind of fallen by the wayside, at least in the sense we understood them a century ago, but people do have nannies, housekeepers, and people to take care of the lawn, which is kind of the same thing. And to have the equivalent of two of those today, a household is probably going to have to earn somewhere in the range of $200,000.

    So why does everybody in America think we are middle class? If we go by what is literally the “middle” of the wage levels, then middle class might be somewhere between earning $20,000 per year and $100,000 per year, depending on household size. However, Pew survey in 2008 found that something like 40% of people earning less than $20,000 considered themselves middle class, and about a third of people earning over $150,000 did, too. Now, I’m pretty sure that people earning $15,000 and $150,000 are in different classes, but those people themselves don’t seem to think so. We’ve glorified the middle class to the point that everybody in this country seems to identify with it. But that doesn’t make it so.

    If we really want consistent class definitions, then we need to restore “working class” to the mix. We have the poor, then the working class, then the middle class, then maybe an upper middle class, and finally the wealthy. And guess what? The vast majority of us are working class. Until you can start hiring people to do a lot of the chores around the house that you don’t want to do, you’re probably still working class. Earn more than four or five times the poverty level? Then I’ll start hearing talk of a middle class, which developed historically not to mark the mid-point in earning levels, but to describe the merchants and professionals who were neither common working class nor landed gentility. The middle class always tended to be much wealthier than the average person, and it’s only been in the last 80 years or so that politicians have redefined the term as a means to make Americans feel good about themselves, borrow more money, stop striking and rioting at bad conditions, and consume a lot of stuff. Those politicians who “cared” about the middle class in the middle part of the 20th century? They were really just snookering us into thinking we were something that we’re not.

    Maybe Obama does get it. Maybe he does understand you. My personal sense is that Obama does not feel your pain the way that Bill Clinton feels our pain, but then Bubba is the master of convincing people to think he cares deeply about them. But does it really matter if any politician has shared in economic challenges? Personally, I’d much rather have a politician who knows how to implement good solutions than who empathizes with me. Having empathy can be a good step toward recognizing that there is a problem, but I’m certain that having empathy does not guarantee good solutions, and I’m skeptical that empathy is absolutely necessary for good solutions.

    My gut and my brain tells me that while Obama might possibly be better positioned to empathize with my economic bracket, he still does not have any good solutions. Those same voices also tell me just as convincingly that Romney does not have any good solutions either. Alas, if I listen to these voices, neither of them gets my vote.

    (P.S. Does this count as one of my contractually obligated blog posts? Also, I agree with you that the income gap’s growth is disturbing, but that’s the subject for another blog post, and I wouldn’t want to exceed my quota.)


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