On the campaign trail, Donald Trump never shied away from touting his business skills, running as the outsider whose supposed management acumen would bring executive sensibilities to Washington. In his Republican convention speech, he lauded his dealmaking prowess, promising “to make our country rich again.” During a campaign town hall, he said he had “great management talents, great management skills.” He even reportedly told Breitbart in late 2015 that “in many ways, [managing] the country may be easier than building a business,” and bragged to the New York Times: “In theory I could run my business perfectly and then run the country perfectly.”
As a result, one of the most popular genres for political and business news and op-ed writers has been the Trump-as-CEO comparison. “Case study in chaos: How management experts grade a Trump White House,” examined the New York Times. “Trump finds that CEO-as-president isn't always a natural fit,” the AP wrote. However much historians and management experts may remind us that the government is not a business — and can't be run like one — Trump's insistence on touting his business background has invited the inevitable comparisons.
Now after four months in office and following a stunning week of upheaval and self-inflicted crises in the White House, those comparisons are being taken to their logical next step. Not one but two publications this week asked whether the CEO president was performing in a way that should let him keep the corner office.
The New Yorker's John Cassidy came first, suggesting Tuesday that “If Donald Trump were a CEO, he'd probably be fired today.” The analogies, though stretched at times, were all too easy to make, imagining the president as running USA, Inc. “If Trump were the chief executive of a public company, the firm’s nonexecutive directors probably would have been huddled in a crisis meeting on Tuesday morning, deciding whether to issue him a pink slip,” Cassidy wrote. “It was bad enough when, this time last week, he fired one of the company’s most senior compliance employees, James Comey, and then went on television and contradicted the official version of the dismissal.”
Then there was Bloomberg Businessweek's cover on Thursday, where Bloomberg News editor in chief John Micklethwait wrote the story that asked: “If America were a company, would you keep this CEO?” Other than a few concessions — the Neil M. Gorsuch Supreme Court appointment, a focus on deregulation — Micklethwait ticked through blunder after blunder, pointedly showing how less controversial behavior by a CEO has met with swift reprisal.
On reports Trump shared classified intelligence with the Russians: “Any business chief who invited a competitor into the boardroom and then disclosed sensitive information would be in peril,” Micklethwait wrote, noting that Arconic chief executive Klaus Kleinfeld just lost his job simply over an unauthorized hostile letter to an investor. On Trump hiring his daughter and son-in-law as top advisers: “Appointing inexperienced relatives to important positions is not normally seen as good corporate governance,” pointing out that Barclays's chief executive is under fire for reportedly defending a friend from whistleblowers. And on why a national security adviser hung around for weeks even after the White House knew he'd lied to the vice president: “Any board would want an explanation for that delay,” Micklethwait wrote.
In other words, the CEO-as-president analogy is not wearing well. In today's business environment, being the chief executive of a public company is a 24/7 job that requires constant progress on one's agenda, a well-honed ability to recruit and retain talented people in the job, and a finely tuned, carefully crafted communications strategy that has a company of thousands speaking on the same message.
Yet four months into his presidency, Trump has little to show in terms of strategic achievements, is behind in naming personnel to key jobs and isn't on the same page as his communications team. If a CEO were to make public claims that were patently false — and then not correct them immediately with an apology — most boards would show him the door. And rather than having the kind of efficient, orderly, professional staff that constitutes the senior executive teams at most well-run companies, the West Wing has been depicted as a chaotic, knives-out, leaky place exhausted by the tumult and unnerved about their standing with their boss.
“There appears to be little structure in the White House,” Micklethwait wrote. “It’s more like a court than a company, with the king retiring to bed with a cheeseburger and spontaneously tweeting orders.”
The problem Trump brought on himself is that he gave people a different standard — and a very high one — to hold him against. Because he has no experience in government, and because he spent so much time touting his business skills in the campaign, he is not just being compared to the last Republican to hold the office, or the last Democrat. Rather, he is being compared to a job that has become, with some exceptions, a position with almost no room for ethical missteps and with merciless demands for performance. That's a higher standard than most expect from politicians — and he helped encourage it.
As Micklethwait put it: “Out of all the ways in which Trump might want to be measured, judging him as a chief executive would seem to be the fairest to him. Forget about ideology, his political agenda, or whether you voted for him; just judge him on whether he has been a competent executive. Would you want to leave him in charge? Or would you be calling an emergency board meeting?”
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