Mitt Romney has run his campaign touting his business background.
He says it will make him a good future president.
But does business experience give a head of state a leg up? And why does a nation turn to a CEO for leadership?
The World’s Jason Margolis has more.
Twelve years ago, the Mexican economy was in a tailspin. And Mexican voters had a choice: Elect somebody from the party that had ruled Mexico for 71 years, or choose a former Coca Cola executive, Vicente Fox. Voters opted for a fresh start.
Shannon O’Neil: “Fox would come, he’s a tall man and he’s good looking, and he would come bounding onto the stage and give this message of hope and change and people would eat it up.”
Shannon O’Neil is a Latin America expert with the Council on Foreign Relations. She says Mexico’s National Action Party turned to Fox because he was both a political outsider and a successful businessman.
Shannon O’Neil: “Fox made big promises about the economy, about jobs, about a different vision for Mexico that really appealed to Mexico’s middle, to the middle class.”
Electing a business leader in times of turmoil isn’t all that uncommon. For example, in 2001, Thai voters turned to Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire mobile phone executive. In the 1990’s, Italians tapped media mogul Silvio Berlusconi. He would eventually become Italy’s longest-serving prime minister since World War II.
Besides their business backgrounds, the two leaders share another biographical detail: Their times in office ended badly, with widespread accusations of abuse of power.
Daniel Drezner with the Fletcher School at Tufts University notes the two leaders did come into office under very difficult circumstances. But he says the skills that make somebody a good CEO aren’t necessarily the same skills that make someone adept at politics.
Daniel Drezner: “The whole point of business is to maximize profits, it’s to sort of take a look in a cold dispassionate way: What are the units that business that work, what are the units that aren’t? You know the Prime Minister of Italy can’t make a public address and say, ‘I’ve thought a lot about it and I’ve decided that Sardinia is no longer working for Italy, so we’ve decided to sell it back to the French.’”
These limitations on what public officials can actually do can get frustrating for businessmen turned politicians, says Kenneth Kollman at the University of Michigan.
Kenneth Kollman: “It’s just a much different kind of environment, it requires much more a position of bargaining and give and take, and that’s a challenge for business leaders.”
Mexico’s Vicente Fox came up against this challenge says Shannon O’Neil. She says Fox had a tough time learning how to reach across the aisle, bargain, and make deals as the president from a minority party.
Shannon O’Neil: “That type of negotiation, that type of deal making is very different than the kind of deal making you do as the CEO of a private business. And so that experience didn’t translate well for Fox, and I think also made him slip up many times, (and he) would not get the results he wanted during his time in office.”
All this is not to say that business experience is a negative for would-be politicians. It’s just hard to say how business skills directly translate into politics, says Daniel Drezner.
Daniel Drezner: “I think, partially, it depends on what kind of business they’re in. In the case of Donald Trump, I’m not really going to buy that. On the other hand with Mitt Romney, to be fair, you could make the semi-plausible argument that what he had to do, which was sort of business turnaround as a management consultant, as forms of business experience go might not be a bad one to become president.”
Drezner says Romney’s time in the business world taught him a little bit about a lot of things, and that’s a quality you want in a commander-in-chief.
Kenneth Kollman at Michigan says it’s interesting to ponder how Romney’s business background might help him as a president.
Kenneth Kollman: “The portion of the economy that Romney knows is just a slice, right? I mean he knows a lot about private equity and high finance. You know, he organized the Olympics, he knows quite a bit about putting pieces together to do large-scale projects.”
But Kollman asks: what does Romney know about manufacturing, importing, or the services sector?
In fairness, no candidate – in history – has had a mastery of every single economic topic.
David King at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government says there’s no perfect résumé for president. What we want is a leader who can drive the economy forward AND navigate Washington politics.
David King: “Presumably, an executive, someone coming out of the business world can do both. But so can a seasoned politician or a community organizer.”