President-elect Donald Trump is stocking the upper echelons of his administration with more than the usual share of business titans like himself, betting the success of his presidency on the idea that a clash of cultures is needed to fix the mess in Washington and bring order to international affairs.
The question is whether those who promise to bring a corporate mind-set to governance will change the system or be run over by it.
“They have to adapt to a different set of constraints, an actual set of constraints on behavior that exist in government that don’t exist anywhere else,” said Elaine Kamarck, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Effective Public Management. “Do they learn it, and roll with the punches, or are they constantly fighting it?”
Trump’s pick for secretary of state, ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson, is the latest and most high-profile among the chief executives he is bringing on board.
He would be the first State Department head in modern history to take the job without having had any experience in the public sector — something Tillerson has in common with the next occupant of the Oval Office.
Among others Trump has recruited from the private sector so far: former Goldman Sachs executive Steven Mnuchin as treasury secretary; venture capitalist Wilbur Ross as commerce secretary; fast-food chief executive Andrew Puzder to run the Labor Department; former World Wrestling Entertainment chief executive Linda McMahon to head the Small Business Administration, and Goldman Sachs president Gary Cohn to lead the National Economic Council.
Trump’s critics have taken aim at many of his selections from the private sector. They say that populating an administration with people of enormous wealth and myriad financial interests is not “draining the swamp” as Trump had promised, but simply bringing in another species of reptile.
“It is troubling that the president-elect continues to fill his Cabinet with people who will blur the lines between corporate interests and America’s national interests, and put profits ahead of people,” Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday.
Others insist that these unconventional personnel decisions are the best evidence of how serious Trump is about making Washington run more efficiently, like a business.
“The working assumption is that every Cabinet officer gets captured by his bureaucracy within a year, a year and a half. Not these people,” said Ken Duberstein, who was Ronald Reagan’s White House chief of staff.
Some skills required for being successful in business do have application in government. Tillerson’s supporters — who include former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and former defense secretary Robert M. Gates — point out that his role at ExxonMobil required a deep understanding of international affairs, negotiating skills and strong relationships around the globe.
However, that part of his résumé is also inviting scrutiny, particularly as it pertains to Tillerson’s extensive dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Modern corporate suites are not entirely insulated from their own brand of politics.
What is key is “the style with which they led their prior organizations,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “A lot of CEOs are far from dictatorial leaders. A lot of them, in this day and age, are more consensus builders than they are dictatorial leaders.”
Those who lead publicly traded companies also tend to be, of necessity, more pragmatic than ideological. It was on Tillerson’s watch, for instance, that ExxonMobil acknowledged the link between climate change and human activity, and came out in favor of the sweeping agreement reached in Paris at the end of last year aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions internationally.
That puts his company to the left of Trump — and much of the Republican Party — on the issue.
Even those who applaud the choices say that the former corporate chieftains may be in for something of a shock.
Things move at their own pace in government, and often not at all.
Not only do top officials have to manage a bureaucracy that was in place long before they arrived and will be there when they leave; they have to grapple with well-funded interests that do not necessarily share their goals. And they must answer to Capitol Hill.
“They have to realize they don’t have a board of directors of 12, but of 535,” meaning every member of Congress, Duberstein said.
Added Brookings’ Kamarck: “These guys come in thinking they have one boss, but in fact they have two bosses. They have Congress — the authorizers and the appropriators — and they have the president.”
All of which can be a learning experience for a corporate executive.
Before his successful run for Florida governor in 2010, Rick Scott (R) made a fortune as the founder of Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., which became the nation’s largest hospital chain. He left his company in 1997 amid a federal Medicare fraud investigation, although Scott was not personally implicated.
Scott’s first few years in office were rocky ones, in which he battled with a legislature controlled by his own party and saw his approval ratings sink below 30 percent.
“When I came in, the difference was how much media attention you get. In business, you have media, but it’s not like this,” Scott said Tuesday in an interview. “And in business, if you don’t want to do business with somebody, for a variety of reasons — whether they weren’t as honest as they could have been, or you didn’t trust them — you didn’t do it. In politics, you can’t do that. You’ve got to work with them.”
Nor do the bottom-line measures of success in the corporate world necessarily apply in the public sector.
Mark R. Warner, now a Democratic senator from Virginia, was a co-founder of a number of technology companies before being elected governor in 2001.
“I had never been elected to anything,” he told Roanoke radio station WFIR last week. “There are ways you can bring business principles [into government]. But there’s a lot of things that don’t necessarily translate. When you invest in early-childhood education, your later return on that — it may be 30 years before you find out whether that was a good investment or not.”
Though Warner ultimately was deemed a popular and successful governor, he acknowledged: “When I was governor, it took me about six months just to figure out exactly what all the agencies did, and that’s tiny compared to the federal government.”
Trump is far from the first president-elect to look to corporate America for talent.
John F. Kennedy picked as his defense secretary 44-year-old Robert S. McNamara, who only 10 weeks before had been named the president of Ford Motor Co.
Kennedy would later call McNamara the smartest man he had ever met. Organizationally brilliant, he is widely regarded as the most influential defense secretary of the 20th century.
But McNamara would spend the rest of his life haunted by his role in leading the country into the futile Vietnam War.
McNamara later recalled that when he was offered the job, he told Kennedy: “Mr. President, it’s absurd; I’m not qualified.”
To which the president-elect replied: “Look, Bob, I don’t think there’s any school for presidents, either.”