Why America Doesn't Need a CEO

As it becomes clear that Mitt Romney will be the GOP presidential candidate for 2012, it is worth asking the question whether he really is suited for the White House. Romney is intelligent, polished and moderate. But on the campaign trail, he has made a point of highlighting his private sector experience as his main qualification for becoming commander-in-chief. Romney, of course, ran Bain Capital for many years but it is my belief that private sector experience has little to do with how a country is run.

The allure of Romney as president is based on the mythology of the "CEO" in our culture. Americans vest considerable faith in corporate leaders, mainly because they drive our capitalist system and prosperity. That is valid but in electing a president we should make the crucial distinction between a capitalist system and a nation. A country is a much more complex enterprise than a business. While Bain Capital does not need to worry about poverty, disease, hunger, terrorism, education, culture or science unless they can profit from doing so, America definitely does. The takeaway is that the rules and priorities which create success in business may not be appropriate for the more challenging task of running a country.

By the market's benchmarks, a CEO who can meet quarterly earnings targets and boost a company's market value is considered a success. Nowhere in those benchmarks are any that gauge a CEO's ability to meet the needs of stakeholders other than investors; such as employee welfare or social impact and certainly not the environment or America's reputation in the global community.

Those things may not be a CEO's problem, but are the responsibility of the president. A president cannot just crunch numbers and make policy on the back of a short-term gain -- the leader of the free world must consider the effects of any decision that he makes not just on the present generation but on future generations; not just on business but on society; not just on the rich and the middle class but on the poor as well. That is a daunting task that requires not only exceptional intelligence but empathy for all Americans, and also the courage to make unpopular decisions.

Alas, it is these last two requirements for the presidency that Romney cannot meet.

As many of Romney's statements in the press indicate, he is out of touch with the average American. The Republican mantras of deregulation and competition may create fertile ground for wealth-creation but will do little to help those who are struggling just to survive. It will certainly do nothing to protect the environment or prevent the abuse of workers by corporations. Coming from Wall Street, Romney sees every problem through a financial prism, whether the problem has its roots in money or not. For social issues like women's rights or strategic issues like foreign policy that type of thinking can be disastrous.

And even in the business arena, his beliefs could be damaging. Can you imagine what would happen if Bain Capital's model of buying companies by loading them with debt and then siphoning off cash were to be applied to critical sectors like health care or education? I don't mean this literally but in terms of the philosophy behind Wall Street, namely "profit at any cost."

As for Romney's inability to make decisions that are unpopular, you only have to consider his flip-flop on health care to guess what might happen in the White House. Romney may be moderate, but the reality of Washington is that a president must appease his core voter base to survive. Romney's base, unfortunately, is ultra-conservative and uncompromising. The powerful super PAC donors who fund the Republican Party machine also support this agenda, which will leave him with little room to maneuver.

Finally, the CEO model is based on reward for performance, which is a good thing but can backfire in the political arena. In the business world, compensation is based mostly on short term profits (options and clawbacks do tie a CEO's future to the company but that system has more holes than well-aged Swiss cheese). What this means is that a president who comes from a pay-for-play mindset is more likely to make policy decisions for short term political gain rather than those that are in the genuine interests of the country.

The mercenary culture of Wall Street may be appropriate for the business sector but not for government. Our biggest priorities, like education for our children, health care for senior citizens, scientific progress, socio-economic equality -- cannot always be measured in dollars and cents. As the MasterCard ad says -- those things are priceless. America is a nation of 300 million people with varying needs and interests, not to mention a complex, evolving role in history. As such it needs a broad-minded statesman for a leader, not a single-minded CEO with only one mandate. Romney may not be the worst candidate but neither does he have the correct resume for the job of president. The United States of America is not a company and should not be run as one.