One of the chief questions being posed in this year’s presidential campaign is: would a businessman make a good president?
A definitive “Yes” is the central declaration of Mitt Romney’s campaign.
He has “an abiding belief that corporate methods can be applied to the political sphere.” It’s up for debate, but hey, if corporate influence is already being applied to the political sphere (and then some), why not?
This approach is of course to the chagrin of some and pride of others, but it is assuredly what Romney wants to do.
And yet, “The relationship between a nation and its leader is far more complex than the relationship between shareholders and a CEO,” as David Von Drehle said in Time.
I’ve been ruminating on the same question, of what I’ll call the Biz Prez.
The problem at the core of this premise is that the premise itself is overly simplistic and reductive. It assumes that all businessmen and businesswomen are the same, when in fact, there is no such thing as a typical business or businessperson.
(Disclosure: I would have voted for H. Ross Perot in ’92 if I were of age. If someone shares your name, you fall in line, doubly so when he prefers it over his first name. That’s why the tens of Mitts and Baracks in this country have already chosen sides, but perhaps not the Willards and Husseins.)
Business is far too wide of a term. Are we talking finance or food service? Car manufacturing or couture? Health care or hotels? Is there a difference between a 35,000+ person corporation or a small business that’s had great success? These issues have received sparse attention.
Is a hedge fund manager as qualified to talk about the economy as a guy who owns nine Wendy’s franchise locations or a woman who has served as a consultant to dozens of companies running the gamut in size and style? Perhaps one knows numbers better while the other grasps the finer points of people leadership and realities of benefits, while the last is skilled at operating within complex hierarchies. All of those traits are distinct and useful in different aspects of the presidency.
Those types of contrasting arguments are analogous to the ones commonly made about the relative strengths and weaknesses of governors, senators, and generals making good presidents. And experiences in those public service roles are entirely appropriate and fair game to analyze in a campaign (especially when a candidate relies on them). So then, it stands to reason that the kind of business work one does is similarly relevant, and not merely to unearth scandal, but to ascertain the skills and judgment they afford our potential Biz Prez with.
This is clearly evident with regards to the tools needed to continue mending our recovering economy. But at times, the coming election seems to be almost too much about the economy. There are a vast array of other national responsibilities, social issues, security threats, and international opportunities a president addresses. What background might make a Biz Prez better-suited for those?
It is not a partisan issue, but a sociological one.
A risky start-up type that hit it big might have green-lit the Osama bin Laden raid, but he might also play chicken on the debt ceiling. A bootstraps-pulling, common sense type might be able to cut across party lines and achieve practical immigration reform. A financial wiz might achieve a budget surplus, but stifle GDP. It’s a given that we would have to acknowledge other aspects of the specific person in question’s background when drawing our judgments on their readiness.
Many presidents have worked in the private sector (and not only as lawyers) prior to assuming the office, but for the purposes of our discussion, we’re referring to those who put in substantial time and were known primarily for it.
Based on that definition, we have actually had one or two Biz Prezzes before. George W. Bush was once touted as the first MBA president, though it’s fair to say there was a little more at play there than his time at HBS or experience running the Texas Rangers (i.e. his family, his governorship). However, Herbert Hoover would appear to qualify outright: he was well known for a career in mining and even apparently once said, “If a man has not made a million dollars by the time he is forty, he is not worth much.” (Of course, there are the little wrinkles that Bush’s presidency ended in the Great Recession and Hoover led the country into the Great Depression. Womp womp.)
Perhaps the right kind of businessperson could have gotten us to this moment sans the massive national debt that haunts us, so much so that we let China graze directly on our financial crops without so much as a scarecrow. Further, maybe he/she could have raised our average net worth, empowered the market to solve health care, or cracked the code on taxes. Then again, a strict fiscal Biz Prez might value a balanced budget over something equally or more important, such as increasing quality of life.
If we are to have a Biz Prez though, it seems to me that it would be someone from a more conventional, less controversial business than Romney’s at Bain Capital, one that is easier for the electorate to understand and admire, or at least respect. Y’know, more along the lines of Herman Cain with Godfather’s Pizza, except y’know, not Herman Cain. And not vomit-ocious pizza.
Challenge for Romney: the small business people on call today told a better story about business (with examples & passion) than candidate.—
John Dickerson (@johndickerson) July 17, 2012
Or maybe it’s just that literally the wrong people are running to be commander-in-chief executive, like Romney, Steve Forbes, and Donald Trump. Mayor Bloomberg never got serious, and will not run, as he reasserted to Piers Morgan in July. But why not guys like Tim Cook of Apple, Steven Ells of Chipotle, or Ken Chenault of American Express? At the least, all three are dynamic, smart, openly human, and have compelling stories to tell.
Even so, there’s one other notable difference between business and government that most captains of industry are not accustomed to:
You can fire your employees, but they can’t fire you.
You can’t fire the American people, but they can fire you.