POLITICS

York: Obama saw corporate job as working for the enemy

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Photo - President Barack Obama speaks about the economy at the White House in June. The candidates' attitudes toward business have emerged as a key issue in the election. (AP Photo)
President Barack Obama speaks about the economy at the White House in June. The candidates' attitudes toward business have emerged as a key issue in the election. (AP Photo)

Mitt Romney's main argument for his presidential candidacy is that if voters want a leader who can fix the economy, they should elect someone who knows and understands -- and likes -- business.

Barack Obama, Romney says at every opportunity, is not that man. "The president has the most anti-business, anti-investment, anti-jobs administration I think I've ever seen," Romney said last week on Fox News. "Some of these liberals say they like a strong economy, but then they act like they don't like business," Romney added during a recent campaign stop in Colorado.

Both sides can debate the administration's policies for the rest of the campaign. But there's no doubt there is a profoundly anti-business streak in the president's background.

New evidence comes in the just-released biography "Barack Obama: The Story," by David Maraniss. Obama spent very little time in business, but he did have a job at a company called Business International for about a year after he graduated from Columbia University in 1983. The book contains new details about the future president's brief stint in corporate America.

Obama was a low-level editor in Reference Services, working on reports describing economic conditions in various foreign countries. By all accounts, he disliked the work, not just because it was pedestrian and boring, but because it was in business.

"He calls it working for the enemy," Obama's mother, Ann, wrote after a phone conversation with her son, "because some of the reports are written for commercial firms that want to invest in [Third World] countries."

Writing to a former girlfriend, Maraniss says, Obama also "expressed a distaste for the corporate world." And in his engaging but unreliable memoir "Dreams from My Father," Obama described his time at Business International this way: "Like a spy behind enemy lines, I arrived every day at my mid-Manhattan office. ..." Obama wrote that he took the job only after his applications to several civil rights organizations were ignored.

Obama subsequently quit Business International, became a community organizer, attended law school, briefly practiced public interest law, taught a college class and got into politics. He had several jobs, but never again in business.

Yet as Obama told it in "Dreams from My Father," he sometimes felt tempted to sell out during his time at Business International. After getting a promotion, Obama wrote, "I had my own office, my own secretary, money in the bank. Sometimes, coming out of an interview with Japanese financiers or German bond traders, I would catch my reflection in the elevator doors -- see myself in a suit and tie, a briefcase in hand -- and for a split second I would imagine myself as a captain of industry, barking out orders, closing the deal, before I remembered who it was that I had told myself I wanted to be and felt pangs of guilt for my lack of resolve."

Maraniss discovered most of that wasn't true; while Obama did have a tiny office, he didn't have his own secretary, didn't meet with financiers and bond traders, didn't even wear a suit to work. But the one true thing in that passage is Obama's antipathy for the business world.

And Barack isn't the only Obama who feels that way. Over the last few years, Michelle Obama has often described their mutual distaste for business. As she tells it, as newly minted graduates of prestigious law schools, both she and her spouse could have cashed in with high-paying jobs at wealthy corporations. It was enticing, but they chose another course.

"We left corporate America, which is a lot of what we're asking young people to do," Mrs. Obama said at a campaign stop in Ohio in February 2008. "Don't go into corporate America. You know, become teachers. Work for the community. Be social workers. Be a nurse. Those are the careers that we need. ..."

The first lady still says that sort of thing. In a commencement speech at Oregon State University last week, she described how she once had a "corporate" job with "all the traditional markers of success: the fat paycheck, the fancy office," but it left her unfulfilled. So she fled the business world -- as did her husband -- and she now urges others to leave as well.

It's a way of viewing business, and life, that could not be more different from Mitt Romney's, whose father actually was a captain of industry, and who grew up to be one, too. When it comes to business, it's hard to imagine a clearer choice between candidates.

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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