Friday, February 23 , 2018, 11:18 am | Fair 56º

 
 
 
 

Mark Shields: America’s Short List of Successful Businessman Presidents

It seems running a corporation has 'almost nothing in common' with leading a country

John Stewart, a philosopher friend of mine, is uncharacteristically agitated. What provokes Stewart is the Republican argument that the cure for what ails this nation’s struggling economy is electing “a president who has made it big time in business, one who can create jobs and get American moving again.”

As Stewart, who in an earlier life was an enormously respected legislative aide to one of the 20th century’s premier legislators, Hubert Humphrey, asks: “What on earth is the basis for this repeated claim? There certainly is no historical record to fall back on.”

OK. Let’s look at the professional backgrounds of the presidents Americans, according to surveys, most generally admire. George Washington was a general. Abraham Lincoln was a small-town lawyer. Franklin Roosevelt was a lawyer. Teddy Roosevelt was a public servant. Dwight Eisenhower was a general. Woodrow Wilson was a college president. John Kennedy was a journalist and elected official. Ronald Reagan was an actor and a union president. Bill Clinton was a lawyer.

The only “businessman” U.S. commander in chief to secure high marks from both ordinary citizens and professional historians is Harry Truman, whose haberdashery business ingloriously failed.

But Mitt Romney is far from the first Republican presidential standard-bearer to sound the virtues/values of the businessman in the Oval Office theme. The 1920 GOP nominee’s campaign published a booklet with the arresting title: “Less Government in Business; More Business in Government.” After he was elected, the Republican, an Ohio newspaper publisher-businessman, kept his promise by presiding over one of the two most corrupt administrations in U.S. history. Thank you, Warren G. Harding.

In the last 24 presidential elections, only two elected presidents were denied a second White House turn by the voters. Democrat Jimmy Carter ran a successful peanut business in his native Georgia and Republican George H.W. Bush moved from Connecticut to Texas, where he founded the prospering Zapata oil company.

The most successful businessman ever elected president had to be the world-renowned engineer and investment banker Herbert Hoover, whose exceptional humanitarian efforts after World War I almost certainly saved Belgium from widespread starvation. Hoover left office with 25 percent of his nation unemployed.

George W. Bush bounced around the Texas oil business until he struck gold as the businessman-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. When the nation elected his successor in 2008, the younger Bush’s job approval rating was just 25 percent positive and 70 percent negative.

Stewart puts it bluntly: “The truth is that you search in vain for a single example — just one — of a successful businessman who then took his business experience and used it to become a successful president of the United States.”

Why is this the case? Because, according to Stewart, “running a successful business venture — like Bain Capital, to pick one at random — has almost nothing in common with leading the United States as her president.”

Unlike the businessman who is praised for his forceful decision-making, the successful president must not just make wise decisions, he must also be able to persuade the country, Congress and powerful interest groups to accept his decision. The president — unlike the CEO who mostly has to answer only to a like-minded board of directors and his company’s bottom line — has to be able to inspire, to court, to intimidate, to negotiate and, yes, to yield.

Stewart is right. The presidency is a far more complicated, demanding and multifaceted job than that faced by any corporate chairman or CEO, where to quote Will Rogers, who died in 1935, “the business of government is to keep the government out of business, unless business needs government aid.”

It turns out that being a successful businessman may well preclude you from becoming a successful U.S. president.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click here to get started >

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.



Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >