While answering a question yesterday about political corruption in Illinois, President-elect Obama chose some words that troubled me. He said:

… there are two views of politics. There’s a view of politics that says you go in this for sacrifice and public service, and then there’s a view of politics that says that this is a business, and you’re wheeling and dealing, and what’s in it for me?

Now, it’s clear what he meant and I agree with the sentiment. Some people (most, in my experience) who go into politics do so for the right reasons, but some seek to corrupt the process for their own benefit.

But look at the words he chose (not once, but twice in the same press conference): “… this is a business (emphasis added) and you’re wheeling and dealing, and what’s in it for me?”

Here’s my problem: There seems to be an equation of being in business with underhanded dealing and self-serving.

Let me quickly add: I’m sure if pressed the president-elect would readily agree that many in business are honorable people who seek to serve the interests of others. I’m sure he understands that the best businesses succeed by making serving the customer their top priority. And I’m confident he knows that many business leaders pride themselves on operating their business in the public interest – not only making philanthropic contributions, but also adopting policies that are consistent with good public citizenship.

Of course, there are people in business – just as there are in politics – who are in it for themselves and willing to cross lines and break laws to get what they want. (Bernard Madoff is just the latest shocking example.) But choosing a career in business, as opposed to public service, is not an indication of a preference for serving oneself over serving others.

Having spent half my career in politics and half in business, I feel confident that most people in each line of work are honest, hard-working, dedicated people who want the best for themselves and their families, of course, but also want to serve others as best they can.