OUPblog > History > America > Should we want a business leader in the White House?

Should we want a business leader in the White House?

By Andrew Polsky


During the first two president debates, Governor Mitt Romney repeatedly invoked his business experience as a key qualification for the White House. He uttered phrases such as “I know how to make this economy grow” and “I know how to grow jobs” at least a half dozen times in his second debate with President Barack Obama. The notion that a business leader would bring to the presidency a uniquely useful skill set, especially in a period of sluggish economic growth, has a certain appeal.

But we ought to look at the claim more critically. On the one side, Romney appears to be an effective manager, at least under certain circumstances. If he wins, he won’t be another George W. Bush. On the other side, some aspects of his managerial style should raise concerns about whether he can make very difficult decisions about the people around him. More than that, we need to ask how significant his business background and management style would be in a possible Romney administration.

Recent media analyses give us a good picture of Romney as a business person and as a manager. Peter Joseph, a longtime participant in private equity ventures offers a close look at Romney’s role at Bain Capital and describes him as a financier who was very effective at securing a return for his investors. Still, Joseph worries “whether the time [Romney] spent in single-minded pursuit of profit as a financial intermediary has prepared him to tackle the complex problems facing America, which can’t be reduced to a financial model.” Fair enough, but one might question whether any career track really prepares a person to be president. Certainly Barack Obama had a thin resumé before he entered the Oval Office. When we add in Romney’s time as governor of Massachusetts, his record looks no worse than that of other recent presidents. As a business leader, moreover, he appears to have achieved a record far superior to that of George W. Bush, who was propped up by friends in the corporate world while he stumbled through the early phases of his political career.

Certain elements of Romney’s managerial approach also suggest he would not commit the kinds of mistakes that marred Bush’s tenure in the Oval Office. Bush declared himself to be the first CEO president, by which he meant that he would organize his administration to reflect what he saw as the best practices of modern corporate America. In particular, he preached delegation and accountability: he would establish the broader vision for his team, grant his senior managers latitude in how to carry out that vision in their areas of responsibility, and then hold them accountable for their performance.

The execution of this approach led to disaster in the Iraq War. Bush permitted Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to exercise too much discretion in the run up to the invasion in 2003, resulting in belated and inadequate planning for postwar stability operations. Then the president compounded his initial mistakes by failing to hold Rumsfeld accountable for the failure to respond effectively to a mounting insurgency over the next two years. Bush ought to have accepted Rumsfeld’s resignation in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal or after the 2004 election. Instead, Rumsfeld lingered, despite indicators that Iraq was on a downward spiral and despite the widening gap between his desire to extricate American troops from the lead role in combatting the insurgency and Bush’s avowed determination to stay the course.

In a careful account of Romney’s management style, Michael Barbaro, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, and Michael Wines depict a man who is far more hands-on than Bush 43. Romney comes across as detail-oriented, prepared to get down into the weeds and question carefully the ideas of his subordinates. This approach, too, carries risks. The Romney decision process they describe is deliberate and may bog down the person at the top in minutiae. In the White House, crises hit often and decisions have to be made quickly, often based on imperfect information. That said, it is hard to see Romney permitting a situation to drift the way Bush did in Iraq.

More troubling is Romney’s reluctance to jettison key subordinates who become liabilities. As Barbaro, Stolberg, and Wines point out, the governor sometimes boasts of his toughness by noting his willingness to fire workers when downsizing makes economic sense for a company. But he didn’t know these workers—they were nothing more than numbers on a balance sheet. When it comes to the people around him who fail to perform or who embarrass the organization, he has found it far more difficult to toss them aside. The human sentiment is praiseworthy. A president, though, needs a degree of ruthlessness, both to achieve policy results and to contain the damage from political scandals that plague every administration.

The larger question is whether management style matters much in presidential success.  Presidents have succeeded with different styles ranging from detail-oriented to big-picture focused; they have also failed with the same styles. For those who think Romney’s willingness to bore down into the fine details of policy would work well in the White House, we have the sobering example of Jimmy Carter, who let his determination to grasp the specifics swallow his presidency. Romney’s business experience also would count for less in the White House than he would like us to believe. Graham Allison, a distinguished public policy scholar, put it well when he argued that public management and private management are alike in all unimportant respects.

Thus the governor’s track record in Massachusetts is far more relevant in assessing his qualifications for the presidency than his leadership of Bain Capital. In that vein, voters might be chagrined to learn that Massachusetts ranked 47th in the nation in job creation in the Romney years. And growing a national economy is even more challenging than bolstering that of a single state.  From this perspective, the governor’s boast that he knows how to grow jobs looks pretty empty.

In the end, management style and experience constitute just one element in successful presidential leadership. Other personal attributes matter, too, as scholars such as Fred Greenstein have observed. I would argue that presidents also faced varying “opportunity structures” when they take office, shaped by a broad range of factors that include whether their party commands a working majority in Congress (increasingly this has meant sixty seats in the Senate), their public approval rating, how much world events absorb their attention, whether they have campaigned in a way that lets them claim a mandate to push ahead on their agenda, and more. This opportunity structure doesn’t remain static, either, so things that may be possible on day one of a new presidency won’t be doable a year later. Barack Obama discovered that he could accomplish a great deal in his first year and very little once the Republicans reclaimed the House, an outcome driven in part by the very policy successes he had achieved.

Recognizing the shifting limits of the possible remains the central challenge for a president. Mitt Romney may be able to master it. But nothing his business record demonstrates that he would do so effectively.

Andrew Polsky is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. A former editor of the journal Polity, his most recent book is Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War. Read Andrew Polsky’s previous blog posts.



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Image credit: Romney and Obama on 4 October 2012. Image provided by Voice of America via Wikimedia Commons.

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