A President is not a CEO, Just as Trump is No Populist

The essay below came to me from my friend and colleague Jim Grossman. Jim is a distinguished historian who lives and works within walking distance of the Capitol. He tweets at @JimGrossmanAHA"

Last Wednesday the President of the United States declared that because he “built a truly great company worth many millions of dollars,” he could from the White House “make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress.” True, the President of the United States, by dint of the office is better situated than the Congress – collectively or as individual members – to conduct negotiations with other countries. But there is something wrong here. Dreadfully wrong, especially in combination with the President’s reference last week to the cabinet’s meeting room as “the boardroom.”

The government of the United States is not a business. It does not have a “boardroom.” It brings together people elected by the citizenry with a group of experts and others appointed by those elected officials.

Nor does the government of the United States exist to “make deals.” It conducts negotiations that lead to treaties and various other forms of international agreements and collaborations. If “agreements, treaties, and collaborations,” sounds rather boring compared with “deals” that will produce “wins” for the United States, then perhaps it’s time to ask what the purposes and priorities of government should be. That question might lead into dangerous territory because of its implications for who ought to be making decisions. If that is the case, maybe it’s time to open Pandora’s Box.

What will we find? Most likely we’ll learn that the American politics suffers not only from the privileging of dollars over votes, but also celebrity over expertise. The media bear considerable responsibility for both, whether through the obsession with the horse race at the fundraising track or the inability to resist the temptation of glitz over substance. Government is neither a business nor entertainment, although it has elements of both. It requires patience, cooperation, deliberation, knowledge, and reflection.

Arguably, success in business requires the same characteristics, the same attention to data, detail, and dispassionate analysis. A few cynics might even suggest that the President’s weak business performance – bankruptcies, lawsuits, and a reputation that makes it impossible for him to borrow money from American banks - owes to the same inadequacies that have gotten him into trouble in Washington. Perhaps. But his modus operendi and vocabulary are tolerated in the business world. They ought not to be acceptable in the people’s house on Pennsylvania Avenue.

That’s the rub. It’s the people’s house. The President has referred to military commanders who work for the American people as “my generals.” He thinks the Attorney General is his lawyer. That’s true in a business, especially a family business where there aren’t even shareholders to worry about. But in a democratic polity it’s not even a matter of shareholders. It’s the people, and the people are entitled to services, not profits.

The irony lies in the frequent references to Trump as a “populist.” The Populists, an actual political party and social movement, believed that business had become too powerful and looked to the government to regulate its behavior in the marketplace. The primary negative referents were banks and railroads, arguably the “disruptors” of the late nineteenth century economy.

The President has crowed repeatedly over the past month on Twitter about rising stock prices. He has said little about wages. In the boardroom, there is generally more talk of stock prices than wages. The Populists would not have approved. They understood that the business of government is governance, not business.

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