Forget "President of the United States." Perhaps George W. Bush's new title should be "America's CEO."
As the president-elect builds his governing team, it's becoming clear that corporate experience and MBAs are key hallmarks. With Brooks Brothers-clad troops spouting watchwords like "accountability" and "competition," the Bush team - led by a man who got his MBA at Harvard - could be the most corporate-oriented administration in American history.
The group is shaping up to be less ideological than President Reagan's conservative warriors, less old-school-government-official than his father's team, and less academic than President Clinton's PhD-heavy crew.
The new approach to governing includes managing bureaucracy by emphasizing "results," attaching fewer strings - but more accountability - to federal education money, and possibly letting businesses regulate themselves on environmental issues.
"This is going to be a very pro-corporate administration - and that's a double-edged sword," says Steven Moore, an economist at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington. For Mr. Moore, the good news is the team may deftly manage federal bureaucracy. Yet he worries that corporate welfare - tax breaks and other financial incentives given to industries - will only expand under Mr. Bush. Other critics are concerned that Bush's pro-corporate tendencies will lead to drilling for oil in fragile wilderness areas, or a commercialized approach to funding schools.
The new administration's corporate hands include Bush's choice for head of presidential personnel, longtime friend Clay Johnson. He's a former mail-order executive with an MBA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There's also Commerce secretary nominee Don Evans, a longtime oil executive. Chief of Staff Andrew Card was once the auto industry's top lobbyist.
Not that all on Bush's team have spent their careers ensconced in corner offices. Treasury secretary nominee Paul O'Neill, for instance, was until recently the CEO of aluminum-producer Alcoa. But he was also President Ford's deputy budget chief. Vice President-elect Dick Cheney headed oil-services giant Halliburton, but he has one of Washington's most gold-plated resumes. Defense secretary nominee Donald Rumsfeld was CEO of some high-tech and pharmaceutical firms, but also has decades of government experience.
But corporate experience isn't necessarily required for a business-style approach. Perhaps the biggest booster of a balance-sheet style of governing is Bush's domestic-policy guru Steven Goldsmith, who gained national attention as mayor of Indianapolis. He privatized everything from the city's sewer-treatment plants to management of its airport.
Much has changed in American industry in the past decade, Mr. Goldsmith observes. Productivity has skyrocketed and "management by results" has taken over. Yet the federal sector has often lagged behind. While businesses often outsource key goods and services, he says, "government decides what it needs to do and does it all itself."
That can be inefficient. If Goldsmith's experience in Indianapolis is any example, he will be ordering detailed audits of government services - trying to determine which are efficient and which aren't.
Goldsmith adds that Bush's approach is dramatically different from the shut-down-government style of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "We're not attacking government, but we are attacking inefficiency."
Privatization may be a key element in the quest for efficiency. Services that could be turned over to private firms include airport management, air-traffic controllers, and government printing.
One approach that may fit with the Bush style is "the Yellow Pages test," says Donald Kettl, a University of Wisconsin political scientist. If the Yellow Pages have at least three listings in an area in which government is involved, the service should be opened up to competition, whether it's building roads, running schools, or lofting satellites.
"There are a lot of places that can make tires for the government, and there are a lot of places that can makes shoes for the government," he explains, "but there's only one maker of nuclear submarines."
While many people agree government could be managed better, there are strong differences of opinion over a corporate approach to policy.
* Bush's education plans include frequent testing - and rewarding or punishing schools on the basis of test results. Most controversial is a plan to give vouchers to parents of students at chronically underperforming schools. Critics say it could drain money from public schools.
* Interior secretary nominee Gale Norton is being criticized by environmental groups, who say she has kowtowed to business interests. As attorney general of Colorado, she advocated environmental "self audits" by corporations, which regulation-supporting environmentalists see as having no teeth. She counters that she's simply taking a results-oriented approach.
* Bush may also bring faith-based groups into the social-services realm, an idea with bipartisan support. The only danger, say faith-based groups, is that they may have to carry the whole load without government help.
In all, much can be gained by a corporate approach to government, says conservative Heritage Foundation scholar Virginia Thomas. "It raises the level of political dialogue beyond motives - to performance."
Staff writer Dante Chinni contributed to this story.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society