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Steven Conn

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CEOs vs. Presidents

Posted: 10/19/2012 2:59 pm

Business magnate Mark Cuban recently gave us a "teachable moment" when he expressed his enthusiasm for Mitt Romney

In essence, Cuban believes that Mr. Romney will prove to be an effective president because he's been a very successful businessman; Cuban feels confident that Romney will bring to the White House the same skills as a negotiator and dealmaker that he honed at Bain in Boston.

The problem here isn't merely the magical thinking that Cuban engages in when he believes that Romney will bring bipartisan comity to the Capital. Rather, Cuban has confused the job of being president with the job of being a private equity fund manager. The president does not function as the CEO of the nation, and Cuban--and many others--perpetuates a dangerous misperception when he suggests that he does.

For starters, the nation is not a business, despite the rhetoric we hear from Mr. Romney, nor should it be. Businessmen make money, and Mr. Romney made a lot of it. Presidents must make policy. Money and policy are not the same thing because making money is a straightforward proposition while managing a nation requires attention to far more complexities.

The goal of a CEO is the maximize shareholder value, a small objective, really, because in being so narrowly focused a CEO can effectively ignore many of the larger implications of the choices he or she makes. Presidents can't.Nor are we shareholders—we are citizens, and the value of that is measured in far more complicated and important ways than any corporate ledger can register.

More fundamentally, corporate CEOs operate in an environment that is the antithesis of democracy. None of us gets to vote on the performance of Jaime Dimon or even Mark Cuban, despite how the decisions they make might affect our communities and us individually. CEOs answer only to a board—appointed rather than elected—and they exercise executive authority without any democratic set of checks and balances. The president represents merely one-third of the governing apparatus of the nation.

That's how the Founders wanted it.

Which might explain why "businessmen" have never made particularly good presidents.

Across two centuries Americans have generally preferred men with military experience (think Washington, Jackson, Grant, Eisenhower), or people with significant political experience who started out in the law (Madison, Lincoln, Obama, among others). In the nineteenth century no president came to office touting that he was a "businessman," and it isn't clear that any such person would ever have been elected. None of the Great Robber Barons ever tossed into electoral politics—not John D. Rockefeller or Cornelius Vanderbilt or J. P. Morgan.

And perhaps 19th century-Americans were displaying real wisdom by not being too impressed by businessmen.

In the last 100 years Americans have only elected two presidents who lauded their own experience in the business world, and the results weren't pretty. In 1928, Herbert Hoover seemed an obvious choice for president. He was a genuinely self-made man who grew rich in the mining industry. He became a humanitarian hero during and after the First World War running relief programs and then served as Secretary of Commerce through much of the 1920s.

Less than a year after he took office, of course, the Great Depression set in, and Hoover flailed. It wasn't that he didn't try to address the crisis, but the actions he took didn't work. His Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, another titan of business, only made things worse through his actions and the House began impeachment proceedings against him for his bungling.

Hoover couldn't adapt his own thinking to the unprecedented economic situation quickly enough. More importantly, he lost the confidence of the American people through a combination of his ineptitude and his tin ear. Hoover discovered that few of the skills that had made him a successful businessman transferred to the Oval Office, and the nation suffered as a consequence.

George W. Bush, of course, had a thoroughly undistinguished career in the private sector, but when he campaigned 12 years ago he still advertised himself as the first MBA candidate—a man who would bring his business training to the job of running the federal government. And, of course, the results from our first MBA president were: two feckless, unfunded wars and the worst financial crisis since... well, since the last time we elected a businessman as president.

Let's flip this equation between the president and a corporate CEO upside down and perform a little thought-experiment: Rather than demand that the country be run more like a business, with a CEO as president—and which business might that be, by the way, Enron, AIG, Countrywide, the airlines, Lehman Brothers?—let's ask what might happen if businesses were run more like government. We might see decision-making that was more democratic, public and transparent; greater public accountability; and a greater concern for the public well-being, rather than the crude maximizing of profits.

After all, corporations come and go, but the nation has endured for over two centuries. There must be some wisdom there from which even the private sector could benefit.

This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.

 
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