Some “successful” CEOs – meaning they have personally become very rich while their stockholders and suppliers may or may not have benefited much – decided that their business success can be transferred to the national economy and political governance. We have certainly had presidents before from the very wealthy class: George Washington (probably our richest president measured in today’s dollars), Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, George H.W. Bush. Yet all but Washington were beneficiaries of inherited money, not earned wealth. Such inheritance allowed them to follow a career of public and/or political service that helped prepare them for the presidency. But when a CEO/businessperson directly enters the political ring, it is typically from a “business managerial” perspective. Unfortunately, that perspective does not often translate well into public governance.
Why? Because the business world and the government world are each built upon fundamentally different premises, exist for completely different objectives, operate within vastly different working processes, and are subject to totally different metrics of measurement. About the only aspect they share is a baseline that neither can exist for long if they go broke. Beyond that one commonality, business success is measured by net profit, and the Return on Investment (ROI) to its owners/stockholders. Our American governments are measured by their adequacy of maintaining public safety and delivering certain basic infrastructure services, while ensuring equal opportunity and treatment for all citizens who have widely divergent backgrounds, ambitions and life choices. Business is built on a command-and-control decision-making structure with clear centers of absolute authority. Government is built on persuasion and consensus, even in these frustrating times of “no compromise,” with few centers of absolute authority.
In 2008, Mitt Romney (a very wealthy businessman) ran for the Republican nomination for President, emphasizing his business success and economic promises as his qualifications for office. He lost that nomination campaign to John McCain. In a July 2, 2008, post (full text still available on this blog site) reflecting on “Buying the Presidency-2,” the following observations were made:
“For Mitt Romney, it was not his wealth I objected to, which he seems to have come to quite legitimately. It is his attitude that came through so pervasively, i.e. that his electability should be predicated on his wealth, that being successful in business inherently qualifies one to be successful in governmental leadership. The reality is that American government is not a business, was never designed from the get-go to be ‘run like a business’ (although that does not preclude utilizing business-like operating efficiencies). Political leadership and achievement is about vision, compromise, building consensus among divergent but equal stakeholders, attending to and balancing conflicting needs rather than playing to “niche market segments” (a la Karl Rove and George Bush). It is not about electability, it is about governing.
The US Congress is not a stockholder’s meeting, the Supreme Court is not a corporate board, and state governments are not subsidiary corporations. It was Romney’s lack of understanding and connection with many facets of the American citizenry, and the failure to truly understand “government” for what it is, that I think ultimately undermined him. It is why his (or any other) campaign must show a broad body of public support – via volunteerism, fundraising, and ultimately votes – in order to qualify one for public office (versus being designated as corporate CEO).”
I spent most of my career years in the non-profit world, primarily with public and private colleges and universities, with side ventures in artistic and spiritual organizations. I watched firsthand the difficulty well-intended business people had in serving on Boards of Trustees or in management / advisory positions with non-profit/public service organizations. There would simply be a fundamental disconnect in the thinking, perception, and verbiage of the business people vis-à-vis the non-profit / public service people – a disconnect that would be bridged only infrequently. It is not easy to shift from a “giving orders” environment to a “persuasion” environment.
General Dwight Eisenhower was a career military man, fully schooled in giving and taking orders within the chain of command. When he was elected President in 1952, his predecessor Harry Truman mused privately to friends, “Ike will sit right here [in the Oval Office] and he’ll say ‘do this, do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike. It won’t be a bit like the army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”
The United States Presidency may be the most powerful position in the world. But each President can also speak to the all-too-real limitations of that power. Limitations from other personalities, the various branches of government, the authority of other elected officials, the extended bureaucracy, the sovereign rights of other nations we cannot trample over. Then, of course, are the People of these United States. The real owners of all layers of our governments, armed with their bulwark of rights to express their opinions, criticize at will, protest against perceived injustices, and cast their vote.
Government is built on checks and balances to preclude errors of excess. The checks may be continually tested, the balances tipped on some occasions, but the center must ultimately hold. Decision-making is slow and messy by Constitutional design (though decisions must eventually be made); efficiency in deliberation was never a priority. Unlike in the business environment, governance requires many voices to be heard and opinions to be considered. The President is one voice among many.
After his 2008 loss, Mitt Romney went on to win the Republican nomination on the same platform in 2012, only to then lose to Barack Obama. So far over the years, Americans have intuitively sensed a reservation about the “political CEO.” With some exceptions, wealthy businesspeople, spending large sums of money for political office, have not had a great track record of electoral victory. There are many more “workers” in this country than there are managers and entrepreneurs and CEOs. Perhaps that view from the rungs further down on the career ladder makes the citizenry suspicious of what a CEO of a United Corporation of America might have in store for them. Perhaps they understand corporate America all too well, and seek in their government a counterbalance to the economic driver that prevails over so much of their life. I hope so. Best to proceed with caution when the wolf shows up covered in that sheep outfit.
One other thing we should remember. Being President is about more than just the economy. Certainly our national economic viability and our personal economic well-being are vitally important. They always constitute standard topics for campaign rhetoric. But as any mayor, county commissioner, governor or former President can attest, there is a full and wide-ranging menu of issues that require experience and skill from elected executives. With all due respect to Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential election, it is not solely about “the economy, stupid.” The Presidency is much bigger than that.
© 2016 Randy Bell www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com