Mitt Romney and Barack Obama talk leadership in dueling 60 Minutes interviews


A photo combination of President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on the campaign trail. (AP/AP)
September 24, 2012

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

The first presidential debate isn’t until Oct. 3, but CBS’ 60 Minutes had a version of their own last night with dueling interviews of Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama. After lengthier interviews about their policies and principles, Romney and Obama were each separately asked the same four questions about the topic of leadership. Below, with paraphrased versions of the two interviewers’ questions, are the candidates’ full responses, as pulled from the 60 Minutes transcript. Below you can read their answers as well as my take on how they did, in bold:

60 Minutes: What are the essential qualities of a leader?

Romney: Well, a leader has to have the capacity to build trust in the people he or she works with. People have to look at that person and say, “I may disagree with them. But I know where they stand. And I can trust them.” A leader has the capacity of vision, the ability to see where things are headed before people in general see those things. That vision is typically a product, in part not just of their skill and brilliance, but even more their experience, their life experience. And so if you're looking for a leader to guide an economy, you hope that you have someone who didn't just study it in school, but someone who's actually lived in the economy.

Obama: Well, you know, I think that leadership more than anything is about setting a course and describing a vision for people. And you know, in the history of leadership in this country that vision isn't always realized immediately. You know, Abraham Lincoln understood that we were a single union. And it took a bloody Civil War and terrible hardship and sacrifice to achieve that vision. And that vision wasn't even fully realized until after he was gone. What I try to do is to constantly present a vision of America in which everybody's got a shot, everybody's treated with respect and dignity in which the divides of race and faith, gender, sexual orientation, that those are not the determining factors, in terms of whether people succeed but instead it's how hard you work and are you trustworthy and are you responsible and you — do you look after your family and do you love people and love this country?

Advantage: Pretty even. Both are right that “vision” is the No. 1 quality of a leader, even if they use it to reinforce the messages of their campaigns (in Romney’s case, his executive experience; in Obama’s, the need for patience). The rest of their answers drive home campaign mantras, too—trust for Romney and fairness for Obama—that are also hard-to-argue-with good leadership traits.

60 Minutes: The historian, David McCullough, says that great presidents learn from the history of the office. What have you learned from the history of presidents in the White House?

Romney: You know, I enjoy reading David McCullough's writings. My favorite book is perhaps of a biographical nature, was his book on John Adams, a person who had extraordinary character, a relationship with his spouse who may have been even brighter than he. We don't know as much about her as we do about him. But a man who had a very clear sense of direction, who helped guide the process of writing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He wrote the Constitution of my state of Massachusetts. And, we saw in him an individual who was less concerned about public opinion than he was about doing what he thought was right for the country. And even though he was defeated in his run for reelection, he did what he thought was right for America. And I respect that kind of character.

Obama: Well whenever I look at the history of presidents I deeply admire — the one thing that I'm always struck by is persistence. It's a quality that's underrated. Being able to plough through, being able to stay buoyant in the face of challenges. And, you know, I think that's a characteristic of the American people. And, I think our best presidents are able to tap into that resilience and that strength and that grit. And be inspired by it.

Advantage: Romney. You’ve got to give credit to the GOP nominee for this one. He manages to pick a universally loved president, sound informed about McCullough’s biography and give props to the man’s wife, thereby scoring points not only with his own, but possibly with the women voters he so badly needs to court. In the process, he has things to say about strong leadership (Adams “had a very clear sense of direction” and “we saw in him an individual who was less concerned about public opinion than he was about doing what he thought was right for the country”).

Obama’s answer is good—who doesn’t agree persistence is an admirable trait, and he too evokes leadership with his comment about staying “buoyant in the face of challenges.” But without a direct reference to a president from history (even if he had mentioned Lincoln in his prior answer), his answer doesn’t come off quite as strong.

60 Minutes: When do you have time to think and be alone?

Romney: Well, at the end of the day, usually at about 10:00, things have finally wound down. And I'm able to spend a little time. I talk to Ann. She is on her own schedule. And we spend 15 or 20 minutes on the phone. And then I read. And I think, think about the coming day and think about what I want to accomplish. I pray. Prayer is a time to connect with the divine, but also time, I'm sure, to concentrate one's thoughts, to meditate, and to imagine what might be.

60 Minutes: You pray every night before you go to bed?

Romney: I do pray every night, yeah.

60 Minutes: What do you ask for?

Romney: That's between me and God. But mostly wisdom and understanding. I seek to understand things that I don't understand.

Obama: Well, I'm a night guy as it is. And so, Michelle usually goes to bed about 9:30. She's an early bird, maybe 10:00. The girls go to bed around 10:00. And so I've got those hours between 10:00 and 1:00 in the morning, let's say, where not only do I do some work, but I do some reading, I do some writing. There are times where I sit out on the Truman Balcony and it's as good of a view as you get with the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Monument—Memorial set back behind that. And so those are moments of reflection that, you know, help gird you for the next challenge and the next day.

Advantage: Romney. They may both be night owls—neither said he gets up early to do his best thinking. Obama’s answer reminds us he’s already in the White House, and that he takes time for contemplation, but it doesn’t tell us much about how he thinks. Romney manages a little more with his answer. He gets in an allusion to his wife, to God and to humility (something he may want to underscore following the now infamous 47-percent remarks ) when he says he prays for “wisdom and understanding” and “I seek to understand things that I don’t understand.”

60 Minutes: Presidencies are remembered for big ideas (emancipation, Social Security, the man on the moon). What's yours?

Romney: Freedom. I want to restore the kind of freedom that has always driven America's economy. And that's allowed us to be the shining city on the hill. The kind of freedom that has brought people here from all over the world. I want people to come here, legally, to want to be here. I want the best and brightest to say America's the place of opportunity, because of the freedom there to pursue your dreams. So my message is restore the kind of freedom that allows America to lead the world.

Obama: Yeah, I gotta tell you, Steve, I think there's no bigger purpose right now than making sure that if people work hard in this country, they can get ahead. That's the central American idea. That's how we sent a man to the moon. Because there was an economy that worked for everybody and that allowed us to do that. I think what Americans properly are focused on right now are just the bread-and-butter basics of making sure our economy works for working people. And if we can accomplish that, there's no bigger idea than that. That's the idea that has attracted people to our shores for generations.

Advantage: Neither, really, though Obama’s was better. Romney’s “freedom” answer sounds vague and offers little in the way of specifics. Obama, meanwhile, hit on the theme that matters to most voters (and that is critical to the country), which is reminding voters he’s focused on preserving the American dream, or “the idea that has attracted people to our shores.” But neither answer is a “big idea”—much less a new one—that will bring new energy and enthusiasm to their presidencies or their parties. 

More from Jena McGregor and On Leadership:

Women in tech dominate Fortune’s annual power ranking

Do jerks make better leaders?

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter:

@post_lead | @jenamcgregor | @lily_cunningham

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read National