President Obama, the quintessential self-made man, preaches the importance of government assistance and community to help overcome adversity. Governor Romney, the quintessential patrician, preaches self-reliance, that government is never the answer, and individuals must take responsibility for their own success or failure.
Whatever you think of President Obama's politics, admire his life's story. A biracial child (born at a time when many American states considered his parents' relationship a criminal offense) whose father abandoned the family, Obama grew up in various homes, and ultimately was raised by his grandparents.
It took a huge amount of work, discipline and tough choices for President Obama to make the leap from that background to the Presidency. As we look at the least fortunate third of American society, we see a group that, in many cases, lacks discipline and has made bad choices.
As Charles Murray documented in Coming Apart, the bottom 30% of American society is literally falling apart - because of issues around industriousness, lack of responsibility for child-rearing, and many other dysfunctional cultural norms. We need better government programs, but to succeed; there must be a partnership where the people being helped make better choices (Hint: Dropping out of school at age 15 to have a child isn't a good choice).
The Presidency is, in President Teddy Roosevelt's famous words, a bully pulpit. President Obama is in a unique position to use that pulpit to tell the bottom 30%: I made this journey, and so can you, but that journey from the bottom to the top involves hard work, sacrifice and won't provide instant gratification. It's a speech President Obama rarely makes, but it's one America needs to hear - government programs alone aren't the answer.
Governor Romney (again, regardless of what you think about his politics) represents an equally honorable American tradition - the man of wealth who devotes himself to community and public service. Romney left a highly lucrative career in financial services to devote himself to the community. He certainly owes his successful career to hard work, intelligence and discipline, but he had the advantages of a stable, secure, supportive and very prominent family, all of which eased his road in life.
Governor Romney preaches self-reliance and rewards for hard work, but glosses over the fact that not every American has equal opportunities (or is equally-rewarded for their hard work). He's in a unique position to say to the upper 1/3rd of Americans: Let's reward success and hard work, but people born in disadvantaged circumstances need to be helped.
Romney could discuss how advantages he received - his father as role model, the stability and opportunities provided by his influential family - helped shape his commitment to public service. He could remind 'the 1%' that he (and they) have an obligation to give back to society, in return for all that society has given them. He could emphasize that, as a community, we must strive to provide equal opportunity for all Americans. Romney could recall for 'the 1%' the words of Luke 12:48:
"For everyone to whom much is given, of him shall much be required."
But our candidates couldn't give these speeches, even if they were inclined to do so. If President Obama ever gave his "inconvenient facts" speech, it would infuriate his base. A speech by Governor Romney about "inconvenient facts" would equally alienate his base.
About fifty years ago (in what seems like a different country), President Kennedy said:
"My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."
In the last fifteen years, the United States has seen the deadliest attack by a foreign power on the mainland United States in our history (9/11); Two difficult wars (Afghanistan, Iraq), among the longest in our history; The 2008 financial crisis, second only to the Great Depression in severity; A sharp rise in income inequality; Stagnation of American Middle Class real income, and much else. Yet, I'm hard-pressed to think of one national political leader from either party, who successfully called for shared effort and shared sacrifice from all Americans.
The distance between President Kennedy's world and our own is a function of the disillusionment from Watergate and Vietnam; the transition from the Depression/WW II generation to the aging Baby Boomers; and structural factors that encourage political polarization.
But, perhaps most importantly, we should stop complaining about the lack of inspiring leaders, and look in the mirror, or as Mahatma Gandhi put it:
"You must be the change you want to see in the world."
A sobering thought as we come to the end of a long and painful election season. Please remember to vote.