America Gets Its First Real Test of the CEO Presidency

America Gets Its First Real Test of the CEO Presidency

© Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Can a successful businessman actually succeed as head of state and government with no prior experience in political office? The first four weeks of the Donald Trump administration has produced decidedly mixed results, but at the same time offered some glimpses of hope for populist voters.

For the last few decades, voters and activists have openly argued that the biggest problem with government is that it’s run by politicians. Frustration with government inaction – or in some cases too much action – have fueled efforts to impose term limits on legislatures in order to turn out the lifers. The founding fathers never meant for political office to be a career, the argument went, but for citizens to serve their country for a short period of time and then return to the private sector.

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That includes the presidency. Constant stories of waste, fraud, and abuse anger voters, prompting an almost constant refrain: If I ran my business this way, I’d be out of business. What this country needs, they argue, is an outsider who knows how to run a private-sector organization – someone without the political ties and big-donor relationships that inevitably bring back to the same old failures and frustrations. That would lead America back to greatness – or at least reverse decades of stagnation and bureaucratic bungling.

Despite these long-argued beliefs, only in 2016 did America roll the dice in a presidential election. Republicans nominated their first presidential candidate without public sector or military command experience, and then US voters gave him the job. Donald Trump embodied the anti-establishment fervor that has percolated for decades.

To be fair, Donald Trump is a rarity in big business. His business is private. He doesn’t answer to shareholders and a board of directors. His performance and behavior aren’t scrutinized by human resource surveys, 360 reports and other employee and down-the-line manager assessments of top management that could humble even a Bill Gates. And unlike most top CEOs, Trump probably doesn’t have a management coach.

As it turns out, running government requires a different skill set than running businesses, even though the two overlap to a large degree. Trump’s inexperience in governance has created some of his problems, while some problems have carried over from the campaign. The story of Russian intelligence contacts with key campaign officials, revisited this week by The New York Times, offers the best example of this gap.

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Trump had run his primary campaign relatively light on consultants and pollsters, insisting that he could bankroll himself and save voters and taxpayers money. That made for a very popular argument on the campaign trail, and Trump clearly didn’t suffer from a lack of support because of it. However, the campaign didn’t effectively vet the smaller coterie of strategists and consultants who did make it into the campaign, leaving no one to question whether their economic ties to Russian businesses might leave them vulnerable to intelligence access.

The Times’ report on an FBI investigation of those ties states that campaign officials had numerous connections to suspected intelligence operatives, but that no evidence of cooperation with those operatives has emerged. It has still resulted in an embarrassing turnover at the White House, with national security adviser Michael Flynn resigning on Monday night. Perhaps this might have happened anyway, but a president with previous experience in vetting employees with political considerations in mind might have seen this kind of difficulty on the horizon sooner rather than later. It may not be a coincidence that Vice President Mike Pence, a seasoned political hand, has taken over the process of selecting Flynn’s replacement.

The White House has argued that Flynn was a victim of the “deep state” and of bureaucrats, and that may well be true. Still, that teaches another lesson the hard way to those without experience in governance. In private business, loyalty and action typically run up and down within the organization, and even the factions that develop are largely contained within the whole and not from outside the business.

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That is not true in government, and especially not within Washington DC in any Republican administration. A CEO president might expect that his orders will get carried out by people afraid to lose their jobs, but bureaucrats have civil-service protections and loyalties to parties and ideologies. It takes time, considerable patience, and skills on gathering consensus to make lasting change in Washington.

Business tycoons do not necessarily believe in consensus as much as they believe in coming out on the winning end of deals. Rushing action without that consensus and buy-in from key stakeholders resulted in the other major stumble in Trump’s first month: his executive order on a temporary block on entry to the US by nationals from seven countries with higher risks for terrorist infiltration.

Rather than wait to consult with the agencies involved or even to get a legal team together first to defend it, the White House rushed it into enforcement and provided the media with a cornucopia of video hits to emphasize the impact of the policy. A judge stopped enforcement of the order with a temporary restraining order, and the administration then lost a chance to win an appeal because of the disorganized approach to the defense of the EO. That policy remains on hold, whereas someone more acquainted with the pitfalls of governance would have seen those attacks coming and been prepared to meet them.

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Do these stumbles refute the argument that a CEO president like Trump can work? Not yet. After all, we have only gone four weeks into this experiment, and signs have already begun to emerge that Trump and his team have learned some important lessons. Flynn’s likely replacement is a vice-admiral with a record for low-key professionalism. The pace of EOs out of the White House has come almost to a stop after the Chief of Staff Reince Priebus redefined the promulgation process to make sure they give no excuses for a judge to stop them.

At the same time, Trump has delivered on key campaign promises even through these controversies – an experience that many voters believe only a few get, and rarely at that. His lack of political nuance has resulted in taking on big issues, including an effort on significant deregulation and cutting back on bureaucratic red tape. It will take longer than just four weeks to see if Trump remains committed to those projects, but he didn’t take long to at least get them started.

That’s why voters are likely to keep giving Trump the benefit of the doubt. They want to believe in the businessman model of governance. If Trump delivers on his promises while learning his lessons on the best way to achieve them, he’ll sail to another term in office. If not, it may be a long time before we hear anyone seriously suggest that government should be run like a business by someone outside of the system.