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The CEO Presidency

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In 2000, when George W. Bush first ran for President, one of his selling points was the claim he would be America’s first “CEO President.”  Of course, Bush’s assertion was far from the truth, but for most voters the notion of an effective executive running the White House has enduring appeal.  Looking at Clinton, McCain, and Obama, who would be a CEO President?

As none of the three remaining candidates have been business executives, any assessment of how they would perform as America’s CEO requires that we rate them on their managerial attributes.  In the business world corporate executives are typically graded on four performance measures: making a profit, reducing costs, making good decisions, and developing a strategic vision.

Making a Profit:  Unless you are a military contractor, the Federal government is not a profit-making enterprise.  Instead of asking our Presidents to maximize stockholder return, Americans expect them to ensure government “does its job.” Republicans and Democrats have different notions of what that job is.  From the Republican perspective the role of government is to keep us safe and get out of the way – let the free market operate without restrictions.  Democrats agree with the need to keep America safe, but advocate the federal government take a more expansive domestic role: for example, protecting the environment and providing health care.  As a result of these ideological differences, candidate McCain operates with a much different idea of the role of the Federal government than do candidates Clinton or Obama and he would be a different kind of CEO.  He wants to reduce services and they want to improve them.

Reducing Costs: Corporate executives are under constant pressure to reduce the costs of doing business.  Presidential candidates talk about cutting taxes by reducing the costs of the Federal government.  Republicans advocate a simplistic formula: reducing taxes will inevitably cause the Federal bureaucracy to shrink – except for the Department of Defense.  Democrats speak of eliminating wasteful programs – including those in DOD – but they also advocate raising taxes on the rich in order to finance important social programs such as health care. 

On these first two measures, the differences between candidates are ideological rather than managerial.  McCain would continue the Bush doctrines – low taxes, big debt, limited Federal services – while Clinton and Obama would not.

Decision Making: Corporate CEOs rise or fall on their ability to make difficult decisions under pressure.  During his presidency, George W. Bush was confronted with four major decisions – 9/11, Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and the economic recession – and proved dreadfully ineffective.  While it’s difficult to predict the grave decisions that will confront the next President, it’s clear that he or she will have to deal with Iraq, Afghanistan, the economy, the consequences of global climate change, and America’s deteriorating infrastructure, at a minimum.  Here the differences between the two Parties are extreme: McCain advocates the plodding “stay the course” policies that have “guided” the last eight years; it’s not clear that he would represent a significant difference from the Bush and there are indications that because of his short temper he might be worse.

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Clinton and McCain tout their Washington experience as having prepared them to be President; they claim Obama is not adequately seasoned.  However, time served in Congress does not always result in a heightened ability to make difficult decisions.  Both Clinton and McCain supported the invasion of Iraq, while Obama did not; and Clinton and McCain support extreme military action against Iran, while Obama does not.  In November, voters will have to predict Presidential decision making based upon “experience” versus “judgment.”

Strategic Vision: Effective CEOs ensure their companies have a simple and realistic vision: a mission statement that says who they are and where they are going.  In retrospect, George W. Bush’s vision for the US was “we’re the toughest guys in the world, get out of our way.”  In the short term this made Americans feel good about themselves, but in the long term it proved dysfunctional because it weakened the economy – and the military – and destabilized our democratic process.  McCain’s vision for America appears to be an extension of Bush’s, “things aren’t so bad; have faith in the Pentagon.”  Thus, voters who are seeking a change in vision must choose between Clinton and Obama. 

Clinton’s vision is “we’ll reverse the mistakes of the Bush era and enter a second Clinton epoch of progress and prosperity.”  Her campaign features a plethora of policy positions, but lacks an overarching theme beyond “I’ll fight for you.” 

In contrast, Obama offers a more strategic vision.  His foreign policy differs dramatically from that of Clinton and McCain as it emphasizes aggressive diplomacy and multinational cooperation.  But the biggest difference is his approach to the Washington “process.”  Obama wants to build a new coalition – one that includes Democrats, Independents, and enlightened Republicans – to tackle difficult problems.  He argues that without a new way of doing business in Washington it will not be possible to build the consensus necessary to tackle dilemmas such as health care and global climate change.

Which of the candidates would prove to be most effective as America’s CEO?  From here it looks like Obama.

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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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In my view Bush has been very effective as a surro... by Philip Pease on Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 10:08:04 AM
Something is missing in this picture. Oil, water,e... by fmcg on Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 5:26:46 PM
It is absolutely laughable to think BHO would be a... by Mad Jayhawk on Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 6:42:09 PM
First I will quote FDR: "Fascism is when corp... by shirley reese on Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 9:43:22 PM
One of the endearing qualities of modern corporate... by PrMaine on Friday, May 2, 2008 at 7:13:36 AM
Bush has only done what Bush does best....he has t... by Viki_FL on Friday, May 2, 2008 at 7:17:10 AM
and it's a shame... to see this article droppi... by waldopaper on Friday, May 2, 2008 at 10:01:05 AM