This column originally appeared in the July-August 2017 issue
of Atlantic Business Magazine.
For each of you who has lamented the lack of business acumen among our political ruling class, or longed for a shimmering titan of industry to step from the boardroom and lead us all to the promised political paradise of tax-limited, bureaucracy-free corporatist efficiency…
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present (drum roll please)… Donald John Trump, the 45th president of the United States, the most powerful politician in the world, the self-proclaimed smart, successful businessman extraordinaire gone to Washington to drain the political swamp, allow business to flower and make America great again.
Uh… Be careful what you wish for.
I know, I know. Narcissistic, paranoid, reality-realigning, hatter-mad President Trump probably wasn’t who you had in mind when you made that tooth-fairy wish.
But the truth is The Donald is far from the first businessman-president of the United States. And their track records—even on business-y issues like deficit and debt reduction, or job creation—don’t inspire confidence.
According to TIME Magazine, for example, six of the previous 44 United States presidents arrived at the Oval Office with significant business experience. But four of those six, according to a Washington Post op-ed, “had the four worst records in terms of gross domestic product performance. The only president since Hoover with business experience under whom the economy did well was the one who was unsuccessful in business: Harry Truman, whose haberdashery shop went bankrupt after two years.”
According to a 2017 C-Span presidential historians’ ranking, six of the best 10 U.S. presidents—a list that includes icons of both the left (John F. Kennedy at 8th) and right (Ronald Reagan at 9th)—had no business experience at all, or less than three years’ worth, before being elected.
And yet Bill Clinton, 15th on C-Span’s list, who “wouldn’t know a spreadsheet from a cooked derivative,” according to New York Times columnist Timothy Egan, not only raised “jobs-killing taxes” on the rich but also became “the biggest job creator of modern times.”
None of those successful, business-challenged presidents, it should be noted, would have even qualified to run if Mitt Romney had had his way. Romney, businessman-turned-failed 2012 presidential candidate, proposed amending the Constitution to add three years’ business experience to the job’s other pre-requisites (age, birthplace, citizenship). But two of C-SPAN’s all-time worst presidents—George W. Bush, who owned baseball’s Texas Rangers, and Herbert Hoover, the mining tycoon— could have leapt with ease over Romney’s business bar.
Donald Trump may be—no, is—singularly unqualified to be president of any country. But his many failures illustrate why there is no natural connection between business success and good governance. As a CEO, Donald Trump could be the god of all he surveyed. He could issue edicts, control messages, demand loyalty and tell anyone who disagreed with him: “You’re fired.”
But government isn’t a reality show. Trump can’t fire Congress, or even the director of the FBI—at least not without consequence.
He also can’t control all the diffuse, inside-his-own-administration sources leaking like a climate-changed spring flood to reporters.
Trump, in fact, hasn’t even been able to accomplish much of anything on his agenda—from banning immigrants, to dismantling Obamacare, to achieving world peace. Not by himself.
That… is a good thing.
Unlike business, the bottom line for political success, as Rick Newman, a columnist for Yahoo Finance, puts it, involves the “ability to get legislation passed and new policies put in place,” which requires a level of cooperation and compromise.
The best (perhaps only good) thing to come out of the Trump presidency so far is that it’s forced us to re-examine our assumptions about business and politics.
Be careful what you wish for.