By rmantell [at] marketwatch [dot] com (Ruth Mantell), MarketWatch
WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) — Sure, President Barack Obama has Oval Office experience, with major administration victories such as ordering the military raid that killed Osama bin Laden and implementing policies that may have helped prevent an economic depression. And yes, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has earned the respect of colleagues with lucrative investments, and turnarounds of ventures including the Olympics.
Each spearheaded an overhaul of a dauntingly complex health-care system. Both have Harvard law degrees (Romney also earned a business degree there).
Barack Obama, Mitt Romney
But what about their early years, in those types of jobs that quickly fall off the resume? Looking for clues about their core characteristics, MarketWatch spoke with former associates who could comment on their relatively early experiences.
Paula Caligiuri, a professor of human resource management at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said early references can offer perspective on stable traits such as conscientiousness, openness and extraversion.
What their “references” said
Judson Miner, partner at the Chicago civil-rights law firm that the president joined in 1993, said Obama was “incredibly thorough.” Obama graduated from Harvard in 1991.
“The only time I ever saw Barack get irritated was with someone who was not prepared and tried to cut corners,” Miner said. “He expected people to be thorough and if they didn’t know the answer to say ‘I’m not sure.’ Barack was never above saying ‘I’m not sure,’ but he was not very tolerant of winging it or people trying to convince him that they knew an answer if they didn’t.”
Miner initially got to know Obama over a series of lunch interviews.
“He was confident in his own intellectual capacity, but not in a way that’s arrogant,” Miner said. “After the first lunch, I called my wife to tell her that I had just had lunch with the one of the most impressive law students I had ever met.”
Obama worked well under tight deadlines, Miner said.
“Barack was very efficient and he had very high standards. The only time he didn’t get something done at the standard he expected of himself, he was already in the legislature, so he worked for us part-time. He offered to do one more memo than he was originally going to do. He did it, but it wasn’t extraordinary. He was very apologetic, it wasn’t to his standard. But it was good enough – sometimes it’s just important to get it done,” Miner said.
Remembering Romney, Richard Koch, who was a partner at Bain & Co. in the early 1980s, said the former Massachusetts governor was “both nice and incredibly effective.” Romney started at Bain a few years after he graduated from Harvard in 1975.
“We met for a whole day, and dinner the day before, every month, along with all the other partners. Mitt was — you may be surprised by this — quite inspirational. Funny, friendly, hard-hitting, always fun and always to the point,” Koch said. “None of the other partners impressed me as much, except Bill Bain himself, who was a quite extraordinary individual.”
When Koch left Bain in 1983 to start a new firm, Romney stood out for his willingness to maintain a cordial relationship, despite a suit from Bain.
“Most partners, who yesterday were our friends, wouldn’t speak to us. But Mitt Romney did…It helped us to reach agreement with Bain & Co. over their lawsuit, and it meant that we always had an informal channel of communication back to our old firm,” Koch said. “[Romney] is basically a decent guy who deals fairly and positively with people, and doesn’t let the party line get in the way.”
Koch said that Romney in the president’s office would help America maintain competitive advantages.
“He will assemble the best team in every area and he will take charge of the few personal relationships with leaders inside and outside America that will determine issues as basic as trade and as vital as peace and war,” Koch said.
Looking further back, Obama was a researcher and writer at a business research firm after earning a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University in New York. Lou Celi was a vice president at Business International, which was later acquired by the Economist Group, and said the president, while bright and a “solid” worker, wasn’t “a natural team player.”
Harvard Law student Barack Obama, 1991 Harvard Law School yearbook.
“You can go and ask advice and work with people on projects, and he just stayed more to himself,” Celi said. “It’s a tough job to get everyone to rally behind you. But that’s the art of a true leader, and that may be something that he wasn’t completely prepared for [as president].”
Obama’s exit interview was particularly memorable, Celi said.
“He didn’t really have clear plans. And I said that that’s a mistake,” Celi said. “I think he had bigger fish to fry.”
Before Bain, Romney worked at Boston Consulting Group. The sorts of problem-solving skills developed there could help a president, but only up to a point, said one former consultant who worked at BCG within a few years of Romney. That is, it might be tougher to win over Congressional members who care more about principles than pragmatism.
For example, he said, problem solving is relatively simple in the corporate environment where there is a clear set of measurable objectives and goals. But in Congress there are those whose only interest is to block movement, and while Romney’s experience in Massachusetts may help, the U.S. is a bigger and more complicated stage.
Even further back
Going back even further, Obama worked at a Baskin-Robbins ice-cream shop in Hawaii as a teenager.
“We look for employees who are enthusiastic, outgoing, and passionate about ice cream,” said Bill Mitchell, a Baskin-Robbins executive. “First and foremost, they have to have great customer-service skills. Clearly they have to have an attention to detail and a good work ethic.”
For his part, as a teenager Romney supported his father’s campaigning and political life. As a young man, he spent time in France on a Mormon mission. To prepare, missionaries learn languages and cultural traditions, and return with more discipline, according to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Sidney Barthwell Jr. attended Cranbrook, a college prep school outside of Detroit with Romney, and said back then the presidential candidate was, essentially, “ordinary.” They weren’t in the same clique, but he said he respected Romney.
Sidney Barthwell (left) and Mitt Romney (center) in class picture in Cranbrook School days.
“He wasn’t an academic star, he wasn’t an athlete. He was just pretty average. Now, average at Cranbrook was still a pretty high level. But based on the group of people we were around he was middle of the road, except for the fact that his father was governor,” Barthwell said. “But Mitt was not the person one would say would be the most successful.”
Barthwell, now a magistrate in Michigan, has seen Romney at occasional social gatherings since, and Romney even contributed to Barthwell’s campaign for a judicial election.
Interestingly, Barthwell also knew a young Obama. The two worked together on a civil rights law review at Harvard.
“Barack was a very outstanding individual. He was a tremendous person, never a bad thing out of his mouth about anybody. He was a star among stars at Harvard,” Barthwell said. “Even in the midst of outstanding students he stood out.”
Being African-American has widened Obama’s experiences, said Barthwell, who is also African-American.
“Being raised in America an African-American is an experience unique unto itself. One is exposed to all kinds of little subtle discriminatory practices that are a part of the American subculture and have not gone away despite what people want to believe,” Barthwell said.
As a Mormon, Romney, too, has dealt with discrimination, Barthwell said, adding that both candidates have “high character.”
“I think it’s a broadening experience for both of the candidates,” Barthwell said. “But on the other hand, if we are comparing the two men, Romney was born with a platinum spoon in his mouth, whereas Obama has had to struggle. I think struggle makes one stronger.”
MarketWatch reached out to both campaigns for this article, and neither offered up their candidate for an interview. Andrea Saul, a Romney campaign spokeswoman, said the candidate’s 25 years “in the real world economy give him the unique skills and capabilities to do what President Obama has failed to do: focus on job creation and turn around our nation’s faltering economy.”
An Obama campaign official said the president chose to turn down lucrative opportunities to “fight for communities” before entering public service, and that Romney’s goal was “maximizing profit for himself and his partners at a deep cost to middle class families across the country.”
Ruth Mantell is a MarketWatch reporter based in Washington.