A photo of Mitt Romney splashed across the cover of a recent Economist under the title “America’s next CEO” was a bit unsettling. Not because Mr. Romney isn’t qualified to be president, but because America’s main need is for a public servant, not a corporate executive.
For the most part, Americans have favored candidates with a career in public service – sometimes electing soldiers but often voting for lawyers who went on to hold public office.
Romney has served as a one-term governor of Massachusetts. But he is surely the 24-carat chief executive officer.
And yet there are huge differences in the skills required to be a successful CEO and the talents demanded of a president of the United States.
Business acumen does not magically translate into skillful management of the US economy. Recall, George W. Bush was touted as America’s first president with an MBA. Now, according to a January Washington Post/ABC News poll, 54 percent of Americans believe the current economic problems are Mr. Bush’s fault while only 29 percent blame President Obama.
In truth, the Great Recession has a long history, but Bush greatly exacerbated the problem with lax oversight of the financial sector and business-as-usual at mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And he boosted America’s debt with unpaid wars and an unfunded prescription drug benefit.
CEOs tend to be single-minded people who clear mine fields. The mines they want cleared are taxes and government regulations. The last thing a successful CEO wants is any oversight of Wall Street.
Business moguls generally have scant public records. Their jobs require little sense of civic virtue – the obligation to seek the public good and habitually act rightly. By contrast, the CEO’s culture tends to be draconically secretive. The CEO thinks his tax return is not in the public domain. The politician knows that not even his sex life is off limits.
A friend who votes Republican more often than not said, “To a CEO, all life is reduced to the abstract, if not the amoral, collecting information, then going down the road to bigger profit, a world in which all issues are reduced to spreadsheets.”
Ronald Reagan would have made a lousy CEO. He was once accused of practicing “voodoo economics.” But the gavotte he performed with Mikhail Gorbachev, reducing superpower arsenals and hastening the end of the cold war, could only have been performed by a brilliant actor, with a great supporting cast.
Reagan also possessed a crucial quality that seems to be habitually absent from single-minded CEOs: He really liked people and could charm the bark off a tree. Elected public servants have symbiotic relationships with the citizenry, and they know how to read polls and the public pulse.
Two-hundred-fifty million Americans thought they knew Reagan – whether they did or not. Many were certain he liked and cared about people. He touched Americans in ways few corporate executives were ever able to, reaching out and touching those outside the corporate boardroom.
A CEO who finds disloyalty cuts off its head, not an option always available to elected officials in government. A US president has to work with adversaries, forcing him to be an accommodator or a horse trader. From Day 1, Mr. Obama has had to work with a Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, who has vowed his sole mission is to make sure Obama is a one-term president.
Like Reagan, Obama would have made a questionable corporate CEO, and like Reagan, his political decisionmaking is worth studying.
Many conservatives wanted to allow a bankrupt General Motors to go under. But Obama, more skilled in politics than capitalism, bailed out GM. Now, born-again General Motors is once more the world’s largest automaker, selling 9 million vehicles, outpacing even Toyota.
Presidents have to make tough, life-and-death decisions that go beyond a financial statement. Commander in chief Obama has several times overruled Pentagon brass. For instance, when Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s forces were poised to massacre the city of Benghazi, Obama interceded. He joined a NATO coalition preventing the feared Benghazi bloodbath, ultimately deposing an Arab despot, without the loss of a single American life.
Obama may seem a disappointment to many who voted for him, but in three years it has become clear he thinks through his decisions, beyond profit and loss statements. And to his credit, he also seems to consider all points of view.
At a time when corporate power in this country is greater than at any point since the 1880s and ’90s, America requires leaders with careers heavy in public service rather than CEOs. I suspect there are hundreds of CEOs who believe they are better qualified to be president than either the Republican candidates or Obama. But why elect a fox to guard the chicken coop after the worst economic recession since the 1930s?
Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.