Do lawyers make better Presidents? It is a surprisingly common debate around election time, with those in the “yes” camp pointing out that 25 of our 44 Presidents were lawyers, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, FDR and, of course, Abraham Lincoln.
Those in the “no” camp cite the legacies of George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt (who actually dropped-out of law school), JFK and Ronald Regan.
In the upcoming election, many don’t realise that we have two former lawyers, with both 2012 candidates having attended law school and passed the bar exam in their respective states. Barack Obama pursued a more-traditional legal path having both practiced and taught law for over a decade. Mitt Romney only treated the law as a backup in the event his business career failed (it didn’t).
So, should it matter that Obama or Romney is a lawyer? Does it make Obama and would it make Romney a better President? I believe the answer to each question is a solid “yes,” but let’s first acknowledge the DC-lawyer stereotype: A smart but risk-averse, regulation-crazy, boring, clip-on-tie wearing bureaucrat. As a former DC lawyer and regulator, I can assure you that this stereotype has some basis in reality. Still, while no Presidential nominee can truly fit this mould, having a little bit of the DC-lawyer in them (even the clip-on) is not a bad thing. Allow me to explain:
Of course lawyers are risk averse. They get paid to avoid risk for their clients. But to avoid risk you need to be good at identifying it. I believe that a lawyer-President is better calibrated to assess any opportunity because they have better spidey-sense for the inherent risks. When we’re dealing with, say, our national economy or foreign wars, it can’t all be “Shock and Awe!”
It is a fair concern that lawyers can get so wrapped around the risk-axle that they can’t take decisive action; but that certainly hasn’t been the case with Obama. He launched a national healthcare plan out of the gates that was innovative and decisive. And, while some will whine about Syria, Libya and even Iran, Osama Bin Laden will be the first to tell you that Obama is not risk averse when it comes to foreign policy.
Love of Regulation
Again, true: Lawyers love regulation. I mean, for lawyers, regulation is a hard-earned, Jedi mind-trick. In the face of any argument, they can cite word-for-word relevant regulation and even offer tidbits of persuasive legislative history. This subconsciously causes the argumentative part of the non-lawyers’ brain to shut down, only allowing them to offer a mumbled “oh . . .” in return.
Lawyers love regulation because they understandregulation. I like the idea of my President understanding the laws, rules and regulations his administration imposes or deposes, as well as the crazy process for how it all takes place. It’s the best chance we have for intelligent, well-tailored regulation in my opinion. The legal backgrounds of both Obama and Romney give them a better chance of not simply delegating this chance away. And it also doesn’t mean that we will have more regulation. In its first three years, the Obama Administration passed 10,215 regulations compared to Bush’s 10,674.
This is another way of saying that lawyers are not effective leaders – i.e., they can’t “sell the dream.” I agree that you are going to find more businesspeople than lawyers who are great at selling. But lawyers are trained in advocacy, a form of salesmanship that predates anything business. Obama, Clinton and Nixon could precisely and effectively advocate positions in a way that Bush I and II, Regan and Carter simply couldn’t. The latter set instead retreated to a folksy place that, in a Chinese food sort of way, sounded great at the time but left you hungry for more substance soon thereafter.
I’m a big believer (and a bit biased) that the lawyer turned businessperson is a potent mix. The President who knows how to innovate and sell, but can also downshift into detailed advocacy when needed is a world-class freight train. I think Romney is that freight train. Everything he achieved in business was due to his ability to sell people (clients, companies and regulators). Obama has a propensity to over-intellectualize to the point that people like Joe the Plumber despise him. I’m guessing Romney would play things somewhere between the intellectual Obama and the folksy Bush II – an effective place for any President to be.
Like being boring, this stereotype is again a proxy. Yes, surely a lawyer here and there is still wearing a clip-on tie; but what people are really complaining about is the previously discussed risk aversion. Lawyers dress conservatively to avoid any risk of being perceived as less than serious. For a client, no part of advocacy is a joking matter. It just comes off as feeling very “USSR” at times – all grey, all the time.
I feel that Obama falls into this a bit. Part of it is his lawyerly underpinnings and part of it may be race; but sometimes I wish Barack would breakout a bit. I love the Bill Maher routine where he wishes Obama would show up to the Rose Garden in a 12-button, purple suit. Me too.
Ultimately, however, there is a great message in lawyer attire – and I think it is Obama’s message as well: We’re about the substance not the style. For the leader of the free world, I can live with that. Presidential substance must reign supreme.
And maybe this idea of “substance supremacy” drives a larger, closing theme. I believe that legal experience gives any leader, but especially the President, a more substantial place from which to govern. Law school, and especially the practice of law, is a crucible that opens one’s eyes to the power of process and critical thinking. The key is to not be consumed by these concepts; but rather to use them as calibration tools in making better decisions.
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