On Tuesday, Americans will get a chance to elect a businessman as president. Mitt Romney has consistently criticized President Obama for his lack of business experience. At the same time, he has burnished his highly lucrative record running Bain Capital. With the economy only now beginning to show widespread recovery and much pain remaining, it’s a tempting argument. After all, Calvin Coolidge said, “the chief business of the American people is business…”
The problem is that Coolidge was never a businessman: He was a lawyer and politician, including the Republican governor of Massachusetts. He assumed office following the death of a businessman-president, Warren G. Harding, an amiable and weak man whose term was marked by scandal (although Harding did advocate for a shorter workday and for civil rights). The actual record in office of the few real businessmen who became president has been mixed, at best.
George H.W. Bush, along with one of the most extensive government resumes since John Quincy Adams, was a co-founder of Zapata Oil (some writers have alleged CIA connections). Jimmy Carter ran his family peanut farm, but he also was a Naval Academy graduate, the only president to qualify in submarines, a protege of Admiral Hyman Rickover and a Georgia state senator and governor. Harry Truman was a failed haberdasher.
Herbert Hoover brought the most impressive business record to the White House. A self-made man, Hoover became a mining engineer who used his intelligence, innovation and management skills to build successful companies and become rich. He was also “the great humanitarian,” organizing relief for victims of World War I. John Maynard Keynes had a chance to watch Hoover close up at the Versailles peace conference, which, against Hoover’s urgings, imposed a punitive peace on Germany — ensuring the next war. Keynes said Hoover was the only man who left the conference with his reputation enhanced. His presidency was marked by tragedy and Depression.
Indeed, the economy performed poorly under all the businessman-presidents except for Truman. It did well during the presidencies of an Arkansas politician, an actor-union president, an ambitious, big-eared Texas senator, a five-star general, a New York governor and assistant Navy secretary who suffered from polio and Silent Cal.
The reasons behind the disparity are complex. But there’s no evidence that success in running a company translates into a favorable outcome in being president of a diverse, powerful nation with worldwide responsibilities and highly complex challenges that can’t be reduced to a balance sheet. George W. Bush was only nominally a businessman, but he did have a Harvard MBA. He presided over the biggest crash since the Great Depression.
Romney carries an additional caveat in that he is not a “businessman,” but a private-equity financier, very much the kind of Master of the Universe that has financialized the economy and made companies and jobs into playthings from which to draw short-term profits. Ironically, one of the biggest losers from these leveraged private-equity plays has been the white working class which disproportionately supports Romney.
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Today’s Econ Haiku:
Money never sleeps
During this election year
Couldn’t even nap