Eric Gay, Associated Press
BERLIN, N.H. — The people inside a smoke-stained bingo hall are desperate for jobs. And Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential contender standing before them, says his business experience will help him save the nation's economy.
"What America needs and what I know have come together," says Romney. "I spent my life in business — 25 years in business."
The next day, Texas Gov. Rick Perry offers a different message to business leaders at the Bedford Village Inn.
"My actions as governor are helping create jobs in this country," says Perry, who spent the last decade as Texas' chief executive.
This intensifying debate between the two over public- and private-sector credentials will help define a GOP nomination fight focused squarely on the economy. The next president — whether it's President Barack Obama or any number of Republicans trying to unseat him — will be saddled with high unemployment and asked to draw upon his or her job-creation skills on Day One.
Friday's report was a fresh reminder of the troubled economy. The unemployment rate was stuck at 9.1 percent as employers stopped adding jobs in August.
But while this public sector vs. private sector debate may dominate the political posturing between Romney and Perry in the months ahead, history suggests that a president's work resume is overrated, especially after the candidate moves into the White House.
After all, peanut farmer and regular Republican punching bag Jimmy Carter, who lost his re-election bid in 1980 in the midst of an economic recession, had more business experience than conservative hero Ronald Reagan, a longtime actor and former California governor who served two terms in the White House.
Romney and Perry, who lead the field in national polls, offer voters very different resumes.
A one-term Massachusetts governor, Romney spent a quarter century in the business world, where he founded the private equity firm Bain Capital. Like Perry's jobs record, Romney's work history raises a host of questions about his role in job creation. Bain controlled some companies that expanded businesses and added staff, while others closed plants, cut hundreds of jobs and faced bankruptcy.
Still, Romney would bring the most business experience to the White House since Herbert Hoover, according to Princeton University presidential scholar Fred Greenstein. Hoover, of course, was a former mining executive who oversaw the onset of the Great Depression.
Other presidents with significant business backgrounds also struggled to find economic success once inside the Oval Office.
Both Bush presidents worked for years in the oil industry, which puts them in a class with Hoover as the presidents with the most private-sector experience, according to Barbara Perry, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. She pointed out that George H. W. Bush struggled with the nation's economy while George W. Bush and Hoover "presided over crushing economic times."
That irony has not stopped some candidates from trying to fluff their resumes to highlight private-sector work as they try to prove they understand the economy because they've worked in it.
At nearly every campaign stop, Perry cites statistics showing that Texas is responsible for 40 percent of the jobs created in America since 2009. Those numbers include many factors out of Perry's control, including Texas' booming oil industry that benefits from high gas prices and the economic benefit associated with military spending there.
He also highlights his limited time in the business world.
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