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Do Businesss Leaders Make Good Presidents?

March 4, 2017

Thoughtful words from Jon Meacham–a man who garners much respect on this blog.

Do business leaders make good Presidents? Given the most common paths to the White House, history offers us few examples. Trump, after all, is the only American in 228 years not to have served in the military or held political office before becoming President. Unless we count Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Jackson—slave-owning planters—as businessmen, our greatest Presidents have come from the bar (Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR), served as generals (Washington, Jackson, Eisenhower) or even failed in the private sector (Reagan went into politics after he lost his gig as a TV host and corporate spokesman for General Electric; Truman was a disastrous haberdasher in Kansas City, Mo.).

A list of the most significant U.S. Cabinet secretaries through history is CEO-free, from Alexander Hamilton to George Marshall to James A. Baker III to Robert Gates. Trump’s aware of the distinction between government and an ethos governed by the bottom line and brand management. “This was tough he said in his election night speech. “This political stuff is nasty and it’s tough.”

Business leaders often go to Washington thinking a focus on results will produce shareholder value for taxpayers. And just as often they leave disappointed or dissatisfied. The problem, of course, is that government is not a business. The public sphere is far less accountable to market measures than it is to the amorphous but real incentives and vicissitudes of politics. A corporation’s main goal is the maximization of profit. A government’s main goal, in the words of John Locke, is nothing less than “the good of mankind.”

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