Does Carly Fiorina's business experience at HP matter?

Fiorina and Trump are both touting their CEO qualities in their bid for the White House. But the differences between executive and political power are enormous.

Carlos Osorio/AP
Republican presidential candidate, businesswoman Carly Fiorina addresses the 2016 Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference in Mackinac Island, Mich., on Saturday.

Was Carly Fiorina a good business executive, or a poor one? That’s a hot question in United States politics as Ms. Fiorina rises in the polls. Right now, the media is full of in-depth examinations of her tenure as CEO of Hewlett-Packard and her 20 years at Lucent. Both firms grew during her tenure but both struggled after she left, and it remains unclear whether her decisions contributed to their stumbles.

However, amid the flurry of competing profit claims and clashing job figures, there’s a third question that’s going largely unasked: Is the top-level business experience of Fiorina and Donald Trump actually relevant to the presidency?

After all, the Oval Office is a very different place from a Fortune 500 corner office. Government bureaucrats don’t instantly obey orders. Troublesome lawmakers can’t be dismissed. Reporters are so interested in your decisions that a horde of them occupies a press office in your own building.

Some CEO qualities are indeed useful in politics, JPMorgan Chase Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon said Sunday on “Meet the Press." Successful business executives have a general talent for running things, he said, and for identifying and recruiting successful subordinates.

“It’s not sufficient, though. You have a whole other set of attributes” necessary to the presidency, said the JP Morgan chief. “It’s complex. It’s three-dimensional chess.”

Mr. Dimon is a self-identified Democrat who has supported Hillary Clinton in the past. So it’s possible he has a partisan interest in pushing the notion that CEO experience isn’t a White House prerequisite. But it’s undeniable that the greatest presidents weren’t business leaders. In at least one case – Harry Truman – a successful president was a private sector flop. 

Herbert Hoover was a prominent mining engineer, executive, and investor before his disastrous Oval Office tenure. Jimmy Carter, peanut broker, is typically ranked near the bottom of modern presidents. George H. W. Bush made a fortune in oil, and then lost his presidential reelection bid amid an ailing economy. 

George W. Bush was the first US president with an MBA. Given the rise of that credential among the American elite class, it’s unlikely he’ll be the last.

In fact, 2016 could be a business executives’ year. Fiorina and Trump both insist that business experience is crucial to understanding the economy and job creation and to bringing order and clarity to difficult issues. Trump in particular boasts that America would be transformed by the sheer power of his business acumen. Pressed last month by George Stephanopoulos of ABC News about how he would find and deport the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US, and where he’d get the billions to pay for the move, Trump said, “It’s called management."

The substance of Trump’s immigration proposals aside, “management” might not be enough to carry them out, or indeed to push though and then execute any complex, controversial US political action.

The differences between executive and political power are simply enormous. By comparison, executives are the masters of their domain. Their leverage over subordinates is direct, and considerable. Their ability to set strategy for their entity is similarly unchallenged.

Presidents have little of that. Their hiring power extends to their own staff and cabinet top levels. Congress holds the purse strings and has a huge say in the direction of the nation. Public opinion is a powerful influence.

In his classic study of the office, “Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents,” the influential scholar Richard Neustadt argued that presidents are weak when it came to domestic matters. They weren’t in any sense the nation’s CEO.

“Presidential power is the power to persuade,” Mr. Neustadt concluded.

That involves lots of skills CEOs don’t need. They include the ability to cajole 435 lawmakers, all of whom think they should be sitting in your chair. They include the ability to take an indirect line toward your goal, and often settling for far less than you wanted. They include an inclination to compromise and an acceptance that muddling through isn’t so bad, particularly when it comes to foreign policy.

“There’s no equivalent in the corporate world to the separation of powers that often thwarts a president’s will. And the job demands political savvy more than managerial experience,” wrote Bloomberg’s David Lynch in 2012 when considering businessman Mitt Romney’s presidential qualifications.

This doesn’t mean CEOs are by definition unqualified for presidential duties. To reach the top, they need drive, clarity, the ability to set goals, and the ability to rally a staff – all useful qualifies in politics.

And business failure can lead to political success. The outline of Harry Truman’s story is well-known: He’s the failed haberdasher who rose to finish World War II and save Europe with the Marshall Plan. But Truman’s Kansas City clothing store thrived, until an economic downturn sucked it under. Many of Truman’s friends from National Guard days used the store as an informal clubhouse, and through the store he met many local small businessmen and joined civic associations.

This gave him his entrée into the local Democratic machine. He entered county politics, then won a US Senate seat, and was chosen as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president.

On the afternoon of April 12, 1945, Truman received an urgent summons from the White House. Eleanor Roosevelt met him and told him that FDR had died.

Truman asked Mrs. Roosevelt “Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Is there anything we can do for you?” she replied. “For you are the one in trouble now.”

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