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Mitt Romney and the Challenge of Turning “You” Into “Us”

September 20, 2012

By now much has been written on presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s gaffe about the 47% of Americans who believe themselves to be “victims” and who supposedly don’t pay taxes. But what does the tenor and the tone of these remarks say to us about who Mitt Romney is? And what does this say about his suitability to be president?

Mitt Romney reminds me of a friend I had in high school. I’ll call him John. John was the son of successful, wealthy parents. He was given every opportunity a boy could have hoped for in life. Tennis lessons, European travel and limitless access to his parents’ country club fairways. I recall with some amusement the weekend that this three-time varsity letterman had to make the agonizing decision over which college to attend. With acceptance letters from a half dozen schools, would he pick Harvard, Princeton or perhaps Yale?

One day we were driving through one of the poorer parts of Washington, D.C. when John looked out of the window and declared with frustration: “I wish these people would take responsibility for themselves!  Look at the way they live! How are we going to teach these people the value of hard work?”

Even at the age of seventeen I was taken aback. What did John know of this? How could he fail to see that not everyone had access to the opportunities that played such a critical role in his own early success? Not long thereafter we drifted apart. Years later we were reacquainted and I could see that he had become a great family man. He had also become the pillar of his church; a man often lauded for his countless acts of kindness to his neighbors and his commitment to charity.  One day he accidently sent me an email about Barack Obama he had been circulating. Its content was a screed about Obama’s origins and his desire to turn America into a radical socialist state. I saw, again, the young man I had known decades before.

Does John offer a clue on how Mitt Romney could make such a campaign blunder—the same Mitt Romney we liked in his convention video? John, others, and possibly Romney are not “bad people” — just self-referential in the way they evaluate many things. It is not that they lack compassion. It’s just that their capacity for it seems to extend only to those who are just like them. They are fully capable of “walking a mile in the other guy’s shoes” as long as the other guy is wearing Gucci or at least Weejuns.  If the guy on foot is unlucky enough to be in frayed secondhand shoes then it gets considerably harder, if not impossible.

In his elegant book, The Powers to Lead, former dean of Harvard’s JFK School, Joseph Nye, quoted from a 2006 article which appeared in Psychological Science. It tells us that “Empirical studies have shown that the more powerful are less likely to take on the perspective of others.”

If my experience is valid, I would add that this is especially true for those who were powerful from youth.

Popular culture tells us that there is more than one “Master of the Universe” on Wall Street.  And even if they are not on Wall Street, as F. Scott Fitzgerald tells us in The Great Gatsby, the rich are different. This is especially true of those who have convinced themselves that they got rich through their own singular efforts. They often think that they have a kind of special genius that makes them uniquely qualified to opine on everything, even without study or first-hand knowledge.

This week, there was a fascinating piece on how Romney handled the Republican convention and his apparent propensity to place himself in the center of every decision, including full rewrites of his speech. The speculation had it that Romney’s overconfidence in his talents has led him to believe that his judgment is pitch perfect on every element of the campaign. Let’s hope that the campaign setbacks over Libya and the leaked fundraising video have changed his view.

This takes on importance because leadership gurus tell us that only a small subset of leaders is capable of carrying their skills from one professional culture to another. We often see it when those outside of politics come to Washington from other endeavors and fail to understand or operate successfully in this new milieu.

As Nye points out: “Understanding context is crucial for effective leadership… [not all but] many leaders have a fixed repertoire of skills, which limits and conditions their responses to new situations.”

As the presidential campaign now moves into the crucial weeks of the debates, it will be vital to look at the candidates in the context of such analyses of leadership and style.

The issues are important but so too is the emotional intelligence the candidates bring to the job.

“Leaders must be entrepreneurs of identity,” Nye recounts. “The success of their leadership hinges on an ability to turn ‘me’ and ‘you’ into ‘us’.”

Romney still has time to change our perception of him, but this will depend on whether he can show the capacity to place himself in the context of the presidency and to assure us that he understands the essence of our national identity. With, perhaps, a limited “repertoire of [leadership] skills” he must convince us that he can turn this divided nation from a country of diverse “yous” into a united country called “us.”

14 Comments leave one →
  1. PAUL J. HANSEN permalink
    September 20, 2012 4:37 pm

    Susan, once again you have hit the nail on the head- now more than ever, our president must be a leader of all the people, bringing us together in an understanding of what we all must do to make this a better country. Our president must empower us to use our commonality to make America all it can be. Your grandfather knew this, and did it, now we need that kind of leadership to do it again!
    Paul J. Hansen- Park Ridge, Illinois

  2. Sasha S> permalink
    September 20, 2012 4:52 pm

    Dear Susan,

    Well said! Sadly Romney can feel no empathy for the millions of Americans who were born to less fortunate circumstances. The Republican party deserves a better candidate.

  3. Chelle Cohen permalink
    September 20, 2012 4:58 pm

    How I wish YOU would run for President. Everytime I read one of your posts, I am once again impressed with your line of thinking. We need someone like you to lead our country. Truly. Any plans for that eventually?

  4. Tony DuPuis permalink
    September 20, 2012 5:43 pm

    Susan—ABSOLUTELY SO!!!!!
    So eloquently put forth in TRUTH.
    It’s so easy to have “a focus” when you see no peripheral. I am a Multi AWARD Winning Artist and Musician (and former REPUBLICAN!) Five years ago, a tragic accident (closed head/spinal cord injuries…) changed my life forever. I too am now a 47 percent-er…
    My Grandmother is 94 and in Hospice care as we speak…She worked at our family business until she was 85 years old….
    SHE TOO is a 47 percent-er!!!!!! How dare Mr. “don’t have a clue” Romney be so shallow a human being…That display of inept vision and zero peripheral is lethal to the already “malfunctioning-disregards” of the Republican party. America deserves better judgement , better leadership and definitely a better Global example for rest of the Planet’s observed perception of The United States of America.
    Thanks again Susan for being WHO You are…
    Conviction of the Heart is a far greater asset than the “panderings” of the mind!

  5. holley camp permalink
    September 20, 2012 6:38 pm

    Thank you, Susan, for your wisdom. What if all of our presidential candidates wanted to govern all of America? To discern & resolve its most complex challenges? Imagine our children’s confidence, knowing a plethora of talent was vying for this high call, on their behalf.

  6. Rick Jones permalink
    September 20, 2012 8:21 pm

    Susan, so appreciate your always insightful commentary regarding the American political process or “lack thereof”. Growing up in Gettysburg & meeting Ike many times, I yearn for leaders of his ilk!! As a centrist Democrat(living in Adams County PA, RARE!) I now appreciate Romney as the “male homologue” of Sarah Palin. Hopefully will see you again @Eisenhower Society venues.

  7. Peter Van Dessel permalink
    September 21, 2012 8:54 am

    Susan, Romney has been conditioned by the Wall Street culture of self-service rather than public service. His polished veneer will always remain thin.

    I enjoy your wise postings. Please keep them coming.

  8. Stu Nicholson permalink
    September 21, 2012 9:46 am

    Susan… a fine analysis and spot on. But I think any attempt now by Mr. Romney to undergo a makeover into “man of the people” will also look as desperate as it sounds. What compounds his dilemma is that he is the candidate of a party that has sailed off on a course so far to the right edge of the horizon that many of it’s icons (President Eisenhower included) would be viewed as too moderate.

    As a child growing up in Connecticut, my neighbor was the Town Chairman of he Republican Party. But Ray Moore was also a man of compassion and (like my parents) grew up during the Great Depression. So, he knew something of hardship and pulling himself up to build his own business. But he never forgot where he came from and lived what he taught us in Sunday School…. that it is just as important to lift others up as we make life’s journey.

    I feel certain that Ray is up in heaven today shaking his head sadly at what his party has become….and what it has forgotten.

  9. Tim White permalink
    September 21, 2012 9:58 am

    Well put, Susan. A silver spoon is often accompanied by a tin ear. You are right to question not Romney’s heart – he is a decent fellow – but his frame for seeing the world. I would take exception to Mr. Jones view above that Romney is a male Palin. She is quite dim, he is very bright. She was a pandering populist, he is an elitist. Through the narrow trough of modern politics, both end up with similar policy positions. TR, Ike and Ronald Reagan must be looking down with disappointment.

  10. September 21, 2012 10:59 am

    This has been a very arduous process which will,hopefully,at last lead us to the inescapable conclusion that Barack Obama is the better choice.
    How many “gaffes” displays of myopia,exclusivity and contempt are needed for us to arrive at this conclusion?
    Susan Eisenhower has identified a possible partial reason for the reluctance by many to accept that Romney has gone to the dark side and is not fit to reperesent the country or to receive our votes.
    He has betrayed many people of priviledge who are not mean,deceitful and who do not believe in Plutocracy yet can see the business practices of Romney as well as the voter supression efforts, the white supremacy language in today’s Republican Party.

  11. Milos Puaca permalink
    September 21, 2012 12:21 pm

    Susan, you are absolutely right! The state of a city or a nation cannot be be assessed from a car (or limo) window. (Tim, yes, Palin cared about herself.) Romney cares about his family and “some” other people, although he is trying to resurrect the Cold War through his Russophobia. President Obama seems to care about “most” people but is too principled to dwell on the type of people who he does not care for (racists, the corporate greedy, those citizens who are inadequately informed about the issues – even those “uninformed” who support him). In my belief, only God cares about everyone and expects everyone to “get informed”. (There are no discounts on Priceline to get back to the Garden of Eden.)

    Dwight D. Eisenhower always cared about his troops, cared about the American people more than any other president in history, cared about the integrity of his religious beliefs (keeping his church affiliation out of politics) and cared deeply about the moral health and future of the United States of America. I will ALWAYS “like Ike”.

  12. Carese Parker permalink
    September 21, 2012 9:15 pm

    Susan, I couldn’t agree with you more. Romney needn’t apologize for his success, but he does need to attempt to understand that those 47% never had the opportunities that he has had. He’s an elitist and probably will never change that attitude. The attempt of Anne Romney at the Republican Convention to help us to “understand” her husband as a person seemed futile. Does she really think that she can relate to a majority of American women? I don’t think so. Gone are the days of true statesmanship and Presidents like your grandfather.

  13. Peter permalink
    September 22, 2012 9:14 am

    Thank you Susan for a subject rarely brought up. Your insightful blog inspires a portrait for Mitt Romney, alias “John”. I, too, have known a few “Johns”. We agree they look at others, and the world, only through their own perspective with opinionated detachment. With power and the security of their past, present and future, the “Johns” take on a persona of spoiled princes. Romney’s behavior suggests he is one such prince, elevating himself from citizen to royalty. He has proclaimed his individual sovereignty by resisting calls for his personal and financial transparency and by secrecy for his reigning visions to lead this nation. He dismisses challenging discourse and separates the “yous” from his “us” court. He is unprepared and uninterested to embrace context, truth and an inclusive vision for all Americans. He forges manufactured facts tailored for each of his campaigns and battles. Mitt seems to be an unhappy and uninspired man in his quest for the Holy Grail, a man away from his castle and loyal army, longing for his past days of private triumphant conquests in his own land. I really don’t think he can change who he is, his heart is not into it. I believe Mr. Romney would be miserable as President of the United States but quite happy and content being King of America. Unfortunately for Prince Mitt we once had a king but that didn’t work out so well.

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  1. US – Election 2012 – Susan Eisenhower Was Born On Third Base, But Manages To Hit A Triple Anyway – 10 October 2012 | World Leader Pretend

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