NPR logo Romney-Cain Case For CEO-President Doesn't Have History On Its Side

Romney-Cain Case For CEO-President Doesn't Have History On Its Side

Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer, not a businessman. Yet his presidency was arguably the greatest. Courtesy of the Library of Congress hide caption

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Courtesy of the Library of Congress

To hear Mitt Romney and Herman Cain tell it, what the U.S. most needs in the Oval Office is someone who has run a business, someone like themselves, for instance.

Their argument, which they make as though it should be self-evident, is that their successful experience as CEOs would make them competent to take the steps needed to increase the economy's growth rate and create jobs. But is that really so self-evident?

Both Romney and Cain are also clearly tapping into the trust Americans have in business leaders when it comes to the economy, apparently moreso than voters have in President Obama.

Theirs is an appeal to the justifiable pride in U.S. capitalism held by many Americans. Also, nothing succeeds in America like success, which helps explain why captains of industry are so idolized for their power and wealth in American culture.

But while a business background can certainly be useful in a government official, running a corporation and the U.S. executive branch are obviously far different exercises.

As Matthew Cooper of National Journal and Amity Shlaes of Bloomberg have both pointed out, businessmen who became politicians then later presidents, like Warren G. Harding, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, aren't typically listed among the nation's most successful oer revered presidents.

Another president with executive experience, George W. Bush, doesn't help the Romney-Cain case. Before he became Texas governor, Bush was an owner and top executive for the Texas Rangers baseball club. Before that, he ran an unsuccessful oil company. Like Romney, he had a Harvard MBA.

His presidency was seen as one of the most divisive of recent history, however, and his invasion of Iraq one of the costliest foreign policy mistakes ever by a U.S. president.

Meanwhile, the presidents on most lists of the greatest or most respected — George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, the Roosevelt cousins, had virtually no business experience.

Harry Truman was a haberdasher but his experience in practical politics as an elected judge and U.S. senator had more influence than his hat-selling years.

The closest the president most cited by today's Republicans, Ronald Reagan, ever came to running a business was when he headed the actor's union.

If the presidency mostly required understanding markets and how to reduce operational costs, how to raise financing, boost cash-flow and maximize profits for shareholders, than a business background in the White House would probably be ideal.

But the presidency demands a much different set of skills. Among them, a president must be able to persuade millions of people that his policies are right for the nation.

He or she must be able to build and maintain coalitions and to locate the points in competing policy alternatives where compromise can be found.

A president has to be a quick study and be a student of complexity, whether they are of international relations, war or of the human condition.

While "politician" has become a dirty word, it would be nearly impossible to be a successful president without being one, especially one who has the kind of personal charisma that makes others want to follow him, that thing called leadership.

That's no doubt why the greatest presidents have been politicians who were proud to wear that label.

Someone might want to ask Romney and Cain the next time one of them talks about the need for a businessman in the White House which White House occupant they look to as a successful precedent. They'll may be hardpressed to find one.