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Cover Story

Does America need a CEO in the Oval Office?

Mitt Romney has been both vaunted and vilified for his business background. Here's how running a corporation really compares to running a country. 

By Alan M. WebberCorrespondent / February 22, 2012

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney at a Jan. 25 event in Miami. This is the cover story in the Feb. 20 weekly edition of The Christian Science Monitor.

Brian Snyder/Reuters


San Francisco

Does the corner office prepare you for the Oval Office?

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It's a central question of the 2012 Republican primary – and will probably remain so through the general election, if Mitt Romney hangs on to become the nominee. Mr. Romney, of course, says, yes, being a chief executive officer does prepare you to be president. So did Steve Forbes, Ross Perot, and before that, Lee Iacocca.

But a surging Rick Santorum and a defiant Newt Gingrich have a different view, at least when it comes to the former head of a particular venture capital firm, and President Obama will no doubt borrow some of their acidic lines and produce a few of his own, if an Obama-Romney matchup emerges later this year.

Yet America has no definitive answer to the question. As a country, it has had ex-generals as president, former governors, senators, an actor (Ronald Reagan), a onetime haberdasher (Harry Truman), a former tailor (Andrew Johnson) – even a hangman (Grover Cleveland, as a local sheriff, personally executed two men at the gallows). True, Herbert Hoover was a mining executive early in his career, and George W. Bush was the first president with an MBA.

But there has never been an American president who was a pure business executive or CEO, at least in the modern sense of the title. So perhaps it's time for a closer look at the proposition that running a company is a lot like running the country. What qualities would a chief executive bring to the job – and would they be a help or a hindrance?

First, some background. Back in 1979 when I was working in Washington, D.C., as a special assistant to the secretary of Transportation, I got a chance to see a business legend – and almost presidential candidate – up close and personal.

Congress had just bailed out Chrysler (the first time) using a package of loan guarantees, but the combination of an OPEC-induced oil crisis and inexpensive, well-made, fuel-efficient Japanese cars was threatening to swamp Detroit. Then-President Carter tasked my boss to go to Detroit, meet with the heads of the Big Three auto-makers, and come up with a package of programs and policies that could ease the economic pain that was afflicting the industrial Midwest.


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