Is Business Success a Predictor of Political Success?

Donald Trump (as Mitt Romney did before him) makes the claim in his stump speech that business experience is a fundamental advantage to him as a candidate for president. Trump’s supporters, in fact, tell pollsters that one of the reasons they plan to vote for him is his “real world” experience. They also like the fact that he is self-funded, that he’s not beholden to wealthy donors. And if the election of 2016 has taught us anything it’s that career politicians are not a favored class. In fact, they are disdained by a sizeable number of voters, not just tea partiers. Leaving aside for the moment whether Donald Trump has been a success or not as a businessman, it’s instructive to examine the claim.


If history is any guide, the proposition that business success is a predictor of political success is doubtful, to say the least. Though not many businessmen have been president of the United States, those that have been were not very good at transferring their business skills to the public arena. In fact, some of the lowest ranked presidents—Herbert Hoover, Warren Harding, Andrew Johnson —had been successful businessmen. Their decision to enter politics turned out to be a mistake. On the other hand, Harry Truman, who is usually thought of as one of our better presidents, failed as a haberdasher in Kansas City in the 1920s before taking a shot at politics later.

The next question is “why”? Why is business expertise not necessarily a qualifier for public office? Why does leading your own company and leading a democratic nation require very different skill sets?

Running a country and running a business are very different things. Turning a profit is the main goal of a business enterprise. In contrast, the government does all of the necessary but unprofitable jobs, like building and maintaining infrastructure, providing an education to every child, defending the homeland from belligerent nations, and supporting young but critical industries.

Second, “separation of powers” and “checks and balances” are foreign concepts to business leaders, yet are essential to democratic governing. A CEO can make things happen with the snap of her fingers. Things move much slower if at all in the political world. The president is but one actor on a stage where power is shared with other institutions, most notably the legislative body. Congress, it should be remembered, has power over the purse.  That makes compromise with Congress over economic policy and other matters inevitable.

Put another way, running his company, Mr. Trump usually gets what he wants — but that is not how democratic governance works. The painstaking process of legislating and governing and dealing with a diversity of opinion would be a new experience for Mr. Trump. It remains to be seen how he would handle it.

A president works in an environment with more moving parts and more uncontrollable variables than any business leader. He must understand and contemplate the impact of his decisions on multiple stakeholders from different walks of life, not just a finite group of shareholders and investors. Mr. Trump would have to realize that he is president of all of the people, not just the well-to-do.  As president, he would have to be concerned about the society at large, helping the private sector create jobs and boosting the economy. And achieving his national policy agenda would require not just “the vision thing” but the political skills to attain it. That’s a tall order for anyone, but especially so for a man with no background in public office.

And then there’s the matter of temperament. What about his particular tendency to play fast and loose with facts, intentional or not? That may work on the campaign trail. But will it work in the White House? Words he utters as President will have the ability to make stock markets gyrate and allies shudder.  

Mr. Trump admits that he gets most of his information from cable TV, most notably Fox News. Though it garners the highest ratings, Fox is not regarded as the most balanced cable news outlet. In fact, many of its viewers watch it because of its right-wing slant. Will Donald Trump be able to turn to briefing books for his information as president? Will he follow his instincts, as he has as a businessman, or will he be willing to seek the counsel of experts in subject areas he knows little about? The upcoming general election campaign should bring to the forefront answers to these questions and others. What we know is that his business background doesn’t provide a hint.

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