Donald Trump’s offensive, unconventional campaign for the presidency was mostly about himself: his bluntness, his disregard for norms of behavior, and his masterful media manipulation. But the political novice never tired of promoting what he saw as his chief asset: He is a terrific businessman who built an amazing company by making great deals. And now, the man who wrote the book on deal-making is going to make deals on behalf of the American people.
The chief problem with his pitch, however, is that the government is not a business. While political liberals occasionally make this point to counter conservative business executives seeking high office, it more often arises in political debates about economic issues: deficit spending, privatization, and so on.
But while the federal government is very different than a corporation, it remains true that business acumen could be a helpful asset to political leaders. The president of the United States is, after all, chief executive. In our history, this is mostly an untested theory. Until now, we have never elected a president without government or military experience. However, a number of notable business executives have sought the Republican nomination in recent cycles. Plenty of leading Democratic Member of Congress have successful business backgrounds.
Presidents get to the Oval Office through superior political skill. Once they arrive, they face tests of executive leadership that would overwhelm even the most adept senior manager. President Donald J. Trump succeeded where Mitt Romney failed: He convinced the American electorate to put a businessman in the White House.
Like Romney, President George W. Bush holds a MBA from Harvard. Bush campaigned in 2000 to be the “CEO president.” But Bush’s pedigree and successful tenure as governor of Texas, not his experience in the private sector, made his claims to executive ability believable. Considering how hard Bush leaned on his managerial skills during the campaign, it is worth noting how little he has cited his business experience as being consequential to his tenure in office, either during or after his presidency.
The remarkably close elections of Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016 undermine any notion that Americans clamor to elect businessmen as chief executives. Both men owe their victories to the Electoral College, having lost the popular vote.
Of course, Trump’s presidential aptitude is limited by his lack of government experience, his feeble grasp of policy, and his well-known character flaws. Still, it remains true that seasoned executives may possess vital skills for presidential success that career politicians often lack. But there is a broad debate about whether and how business acumen translates to presidential effectiveness.
The modern presidency’s scope exceeds anything the framers of the Constitution could have imagined. The enumerated powers in Article II establish the president as a glorified clerk. Far from being an inherently powerful office, political scientist Richard Neusdadt argued that the presidency is an “empty vessel” that takes the shape of the person who fills it.
The framers expected Congress to be out of session and out of the capital most of the time. There were few executive offices or year-round government functionaries. Early presidents personally handled great volumes of paperwork. They paid aides out of their own salaries, and sometimes dipped into personal finances for official duties.
Eventually, Congress authorized funds for a small staff to assist presidents. But as late as Woodrow Wilson’s administration, there were so few staffers that First Lady Edith Wilson managed the last 17 months of his presidency when he fell ill. At the height of the New Deal, a special commission studied the White House’s staff needs and famously concluded, “The president needs help.” Congressional action formalized the Executive Office of the President in 1939, and our present system of White House offices, advisors, and staff began to evolve.
The modern presidency is a carefully orchestrated public relations event and an unending political campaign. But behind the scenes, presidents manage policy proposals, political challenges, consequential relationships, and a massive bureaucracy. Americans have often trusted the presidency to governors, who at least have some executive experience to accompany their political skill. Members of Congress like John F. Kennedy or President Barack Obama bring national policy knowledge and other skills to the office, but their chief concerns had been their constituents and donors. House Members and Senators do not necessarily bring strong managerial experience to the presidency.
Trump campaigned on his ability to make great deals. Unfortunately for him, negotiation is not a skill set the president calls upon day-to-day. High-level appointees negotiate on the president’s behalf. Congressional leaders are more consequential deal makers than presidents.
The primary and most consequential occupation of presidents is to make decisions, not deals. For all the ups and downs of Obama’s presidency, the arc of his eight years in office can be traced from the most consequential decisions he made. President George W. Bush titled his memoir Decision Points. For all we know about Donald Trump, the truth is that we have barely witnessed his presidential decision making. So far, he is off to a terrible start. His temper, behavior, vindictiveness, or vanity will probably lead him to make bad decisions.
But it remains possible that Trump’s political instinct, media savvy, and business experience could combine to make him successful in some areas. Trump seems not to be bound by either ideology or party loyalty. This is a potential liability that may make him likelier to exhibit erratic, unpredictable, self-serving, or even self-destructive behavior. It also frees him to champion his brand of populist/nationalist politics.
In order to leverage his business success into effective presidential leadership, Trump will have to summon virtues of inquisitiveness, reflection, and self-criticism that seem to have eluded him through most of seven decades. He needs to know his weaknesses, learn from his errors, and delegate judiciously.
All presidents make mistakes. Not every decision is prudent and wise. To put it mildly, Trump has struggled to take responsibility and admit fault in the past. It is not usually in presidents’ interest to highlight their mistakes. But it is the duty of every decent, self-reflective person. Learning from mistakes is not just a good habit, it’s a feature of strong leadership.
In a news conference last Nov. 10, Obama was asked about the president-elect’s temperament. “This office has a habit of magnifying and pointing out” weaknesses and character flaws, the president observed. Obama also reflected on the presidency’s awesome information and administrative burden:
This may seem like a silly example, but I know myself well enough to know I can’t keep track of paper. I am not well-organized in that way. And so pretty quickly after I’m getting stacks of briefing books coming n every night, I say to myself, ‘I have got to figure out a system because I have bad filing, sorting, and organizing habits. And I have got to find some people who can help me keep track of this stuff.’ Now this seems trivial, but actually it ends up being a pretty big piece of business.
Trump should also consult the other four living ex-presidents. And, while he will enjoy his prerogative to put his unique stamp on his administration by making hundreds more appointments, Trump should strongly consider the advice and experience of staffers who have worked in the government before.
He may know the art of the deal, but to be an effective president, Mr. Trump will need to master the art and science of persuasion. Neustadt explained that when presidents use their formal powers, they act from a position of weakness. When they rely on their prestige and persuasion, they operate from a position of strength. This paradox may not come naturally to Trump. But presidential behavior is highly constrained by broader political and economic factors. People expect the president to do much more than their authority allows them to do. Trump will be successful only if he convince others (in Congress, the Executive Branch, the media, and elsewhere) that they act in their own best interests when they do what he wants.
The government is not a company. But a seasoned business executive’s skills could serve a president very well. I find Trump’s rhetoric and behavior appalling. His temperament and character may very well turn his presidency into a national disgrace. This would be a shame. A businessman could bring strong leadership, vision, and decision making to the presidential office.