John Gallagher Detroit Free Press
Published 8:00 AM EST Jan 31, 2019
This week’s news that Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, may run for U.S. president as an independent ought to flash plenty of red warning signals.
It’s not that Schultz isn’t a smart guy, or that I don’t like his coffee. It’s just that we’ve seen so many times in the past that skills needed to build a business don’t translate very well into running a government.
It comes down to a fundamental difference between helming a command-and-control operation like a corporation, where CEOs give orders and see them obeyed, versus running a government where compromise and consensus mark every turn.
CEOs who have run for president have consistently preached the idea that problem solving is a simple matter of applying tried and true business practices. And they hold out the promise that their special CEO-type skills are all that’s needed.
As Donald Trump said during his 2016 campaign of fixing America’s problems, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”
He was hardly the first business leader to offer a promise like that. H. Ross Perot, the talented businessman who ran for president as an independent in the 1990s, used to talk about opening the hood of the car and getting it fixed, as if government were that easy. He told one rally, “Now, the greatest work I and my people have ever done is when we take a high talent team, just zero in like a laser and nail it and move on to the next problem.”
If only it were that simple. But what makes government so difficult is that we’re not dealing just with technocratic issues, but with fundamentally different visions of what we should be as a people.
Back at the beginning of the nation when George Washington served as our first president, he chose two of the most brilliant Americans for his Cabinet. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton used to argue over the same fundamental issues that divide us today — issues of race and class, of big states versus small and urban versus rural, of small business and yeoman farmers versus the financial interests in the cities.
Resolving such differences and forming policy are never as simple as opening the hood of a car and fixing a balky carburetor.
Those who live in the political world understand the difference.
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Back when John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, his new vice president, Lyndon Johnson, was awed by all the brilliant minds that Kennedy established around him as his brain trust. Men like Robert McNamara, the former boss of Ford who became Kennedy’s defense secretary and who blundered the nation into the Vietnam quagmire.
In those early days of Camelot, as Johnson raved about all the smart guys in the new administration, his mentor, longtime Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn of Texas, supposedly responded, “I’d feel a lot better if some of them had run for sheriff just once.”
What Rayburn’s pithy observation captured is how politics can bring a sense of the limits of office. He knew that even supposedly powerful people are hemmed in by the realities of competing, even intractable, differences, and that the American constitutional system is designed to slow down the process, to balance one branch against another.
Harry Truman, who served as president from 1945-53, captured this reality in one of his more downbeat reflections from the Oval Office.
“I sit here all day, trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have sense enough to do, without my persuading them,” Truman said. “They talk about the power of the president, how I can just push a button to get things done. Why, I spend most of my time kissing somebody’s ass.”
CEOs who run for president typically don’t understand that. H. Ross Perot never got that. Neither, I think, has Donald Trump. And I suspect Howard Schultz doesn’t, either.
Contact John Gallagher: 313-222-5173 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jgallagherfreep.
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