Business leaders often talk about the “core competencies” of their organization. A firm’s core competency is not just what a business does best, it is a unique advantage over potential competitors, and it is also a skill or capability that can be reused, applied to multiple potential products and markets.
Core competence is often defined in relative terms: It’s what sets one business apart from other firms working in the same space, a strength when compared with the competition.
Political candidates also have core competencies. And one way to identify those core competencies is to look at the roles that the candidates play within their own organizations — the jobs they do, and also the jobs they want to be seen doing.
For example, the GOP contender, Mitt Romney, has put himself at the center of the campaign’s strategic planning. Unlike most campaigns, which rely on considerable direction from the candidate but are chiefly managed by a powerful staff strategist — an operative/visionary like Karl Rove or David Axelrod — Romney, as Politico put it, is his own top political adviser: “Romneyworld consists of a set of interlocking circles, created during his time in business and in government, tied together by a campaign manager with a clear mandate over the operation but with the candidate himself at the center.”
This isn’t just the way the operation works. It’s also the perception they labor to create. The Romney campaign dislikes process stories and tends to resist participating in media “coverage that focuses on the impact of particular advisers. As Jason Zengerle reported in his excellent GQ profile of senior Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom, there was more than a little internal friction when a debate coach brought on to help Romney was highlighted in a prominent New York Times article. And Zengerle suggests that there were consequences: “A few days later, Romney's debate coach, who figured significantly in the Times story, got booted from the campaign. No one has crowed since.” The campaign wants to ensure that any credit for successful operations goes to Romney, not his aides.
Obama, in contrast, wants to be seen as a visionary rhetorician — a speaker and wordsmith whose candidacy revolves around both his grand ideas and his power to express them.
And in his campaign operations, that’s the role he seems to play. Obama famously wrote his career-making 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, insisting on drafting the speech himself after finding previous speeches and remarks written by advisers Robert Gibbs and David Axelrod to be insufficiently authentic and powerful expressions of his beliefs. Obama felt he could put his ideas into words better than anyone else. And his staff seemed to agree.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Time’s Jay Newton-Small looked at Obama’s speechwriting process, writing that “Obama takes an unusually hands-on approach to his speech writing, more so than most politicians.” Axelrod, the campaign’s top strategist, reinforced this view, telling Newton-Small, "When you're working with Senator Obama the main player on a speech is Senator Obama. He is the best speechwriter in the group and he knows what he wants to say and he generally says it better than anybody else would."
Another way of saying this might be that Obama is selling ideas while Romney is selling action. You can see this reflected in their records. Obama is much more effective at conjuring up a powerful vision than he is at designing the details of legislation or its implementation. As the governor of Massachusetts and the head of Bain Capital, on the other hand, Romney seems to have managed and implemented policy well enough. But he hasn't been able to successfully pitch voters on a grand vision and doesn’t seem to be driven by one himself. In the end, then, their strengths suggest their weaknesses. Looking at the core competency of each candidate tells you as much about the gaps in their abilities as it does about what they think they do well.