Is business success a winning qualification for being president?
A 40-something acquaintance, a smart techie and recent immigrant tried to convince me the other day about what he saw as ideal qualities that Donald Trump had for being president of the U.S. and de facto the most powerful person in the world. It boiled down to one compelling factor: Trump has an impressive record as a successful businessman.
The argument is widely used. It goes like this: First, Trump has been so successful in business that he is not only a billionaire, he can use his business acumen and managerial skills to run the administration far more efficiently than any career politician. Second, Trump has so honed negotiating expertise as an experienced businessman that as president he can make winning deals with Congress, with Mexico, with Russia, with China, you name it. And, third, my acquaintance said: "I have watched him perform for years. He is frank, not politically correct."
That, of course, forms the core of Trump's campaign message and it has apparently won over a wide range of citizens despite the discomfiting political incorrectness of the candidate's tone. Trump may be a hate-monger, a nativist and a misogynist, but he is smart because he has been successful in business. He would, therefore, be an ideal chief executive of the nation. Really?
Having worked closely with a couple of extremely savvy media billionaires in a past incarnation as a newspaper editor, I have doubts about any assumption that smartness in business automatically translates into suitability for top leadership in public service. Trump's controversial track record as a businessman, whether he is in fact as successful as he claims, is not the issue here. It's that business and government are different worlds. They often cooperate and often come into conflict. Sure, a businessman can be a smart president. But smarts in business may not be enough for anyone to lead a democratic nation, especially one as diverse and globally consequential as the US.
The business of business is indeed business. An ability to generate optimum returns on capital on a sustained basis endears business leaders to company boards or, as the case may be, to a proprietor's family and friends. The decisive qualifier is financial results, not public goods.
The system on the whole works well in a market economy. Profits for the firm can generate positive public results by way of jobs and beneficial socio-economic outcomes of goods and services. But public service is not a business's driving motive. Profit is.
The world of public service is rather different. The quality of goods and services generated through effective, or otherwise, public policy for the general citizenry is what makes or breaks a leader through public accountability. Leadership in public service, certainly in the post of president of the most important nation on earth, cannot be measured in financial statements.
Thus, negotiating deals in the private sector to secure best financial outcomes for a business bears little resemblance to negotiating political and economic agreements, domestically or internationally, within a system of constitutionally decreed checks and balances that necessarily restrain a head of government's power. A company head has a generally friendly board of directors and perhaps auditors to deal with. A head of state leads the executive branch but has to contend with two other branches of government, the judiciary and the legislature. It requires more than just business skills.
Not that a smart businessman can never make a great president. But if you glance through a list of past 20th century U.S. presidents who are regarded as reasonably successful or at least charismatic, you won't find one whose primary claim to success before becoming president was in business. Not the two Roosevelts, not Truman, not Eisenhower, not Kennedy, not Reagan, not Clinton. The two names you might come up with if you have to make a point are George W. Bush and Herbert Hoover and neither was any shining example of a successful president. And there's the example of Italy's former prime minister and media mogul Silivio Berlusconi whose blustering swagger matches Trump's.
The third point my acquaintance made in favor of the candidate's seemingly obvious executive skills, however, may be crucially important to understanding the Trump phenomenon. The man presumed to be the real Trump has been "seen" on television displaying a powerful, no-nonsense personality while hiring and firing people. It is an illusion. But illusion critically influences public perception of a personality who is acting for the masses in the role of a man in charge. Such a person's disdain for political correctness, which others see as a distressing lack of politeness and decorum, becomes a sign of authenticity.
In fact, Trump's real skill as a businessman is in branding. Throughout his business career he has made his name into a personal brand that sells. You don't think of his enterprises or hotels when you hear of Donald Trump. His name is his triumphant brand. Now in the glaring light of television and social media driven politics, Trump the brand is what counts, not the Republican party he claims to represent nor does conservatism and the near-absence of detail in his policy proposals matter; Trump the decider can do it. He has the name. It'll all be great again.
Gautam Adhikari is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. The views expressed here are the author's personal.