Early in Donald Trump’s time on NBC’s The Apprentice, I wrote a column for the New York Times wondering why the network had cast someone with such a spotty business record (especially from the perspective of his casino shareholders) in the role of successful business tycoon. Trump called me the day the piece ran and he definitely got the best of our candid exchange when he pointed out that it was pretty rich for me to call him a failure when I was the one working at a (expletive) newspaper.
I’ve been reminded of that conversation watching Trump and Carly Fiorina attack each other’s business record in recent weeks. And on this issue, if on little else, both candidates are absolutely correct: The other’s business record shouldn’t inspire confidence among voters.
Trump has made a lot of money as a charismatic real estate promoter, but failed at the casino and lodging business and, worst of all, boasts that others who invested in him (such as creditors to his serially bankrupt casino company) didn’t fare well, even when he did. Fiorina, meanwhile, did hold a position that offers more meaningful experience for a would-be president, running Hewlett-Packard, a multinational, public company with many constituencies and product lines. Trouble is, she didn’t do a good job of it, and has shown little willingness to acknowledge that fact and learn from her mistakes. It’s clear in retrospect, and was clear to many at the time, that betting Hewlett-Packard’s future on a pricey merger with Compaq, the computer maker, was a doomed strategy.
To be fair, Trump and Fiorina have been successful in life; it took considerable smarts and drive to for them to have achieved what they did, and to have become as wealthy as they did. But they wouldn’t appear on a list of folks you’d come up with under the heading: “Hey, these CEOs have been so good in the business world, imagine what they could do as president.”
I find myself wishing we had someone from that list in the race. I do agree with the Trump-Fiorina premise that a successful stint as the CEO of a global company is a compelling credential for a presidential candidate. There was a time in our nation’s history when Americans believed successful generals should automatically be considered presidential material, even if they were outsiders to the political process. We should think of our most successful CEOs in such a manner today.
There have been a number of presidents with business backgrounds, including Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and both Bush presidents, who admittedly don’t stand out among the all-time greats. And we’ve also had other successful business leaders make serious runs for the office, including Mitt Romney and Ross Perot. Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York who built an information conglomerate that bears his name, may decide one of these presidential cycles to run for the White House.
But no one who has been the successful CEO of a major, publicly traded multinational corporation has gone on to be president. Much of the criticism of past business leaders in politics (including some of those previous presidents) is centered on the incompatibility between the insular world you rule when you run your own business and the consensus-driven, diplomacy-requiring realm of politics. But being CEO of a large company that is owned by shareholders (a key distinction), and involved in many different industries and geographic markets, is an inherently political job, demanding many of the same skills the White House requires. It is more akin to being president than to being the dictator of a business you founded and own.
So allow me to nominate Bob Iger, the chairman and CEO of Disney, for your consideration. He’s the type of businessman I wish we could throw into the mix. First, think of the job he’s held since 2005. Disney, like the country as a whole, is a fabled entity with a strong identity and story about itself—as the ultimate storyteller—that Iger is merely entrusted with for a time, before he passes it on to future generations. As an important player in the sports, retail, technology, travel, news, and entertainment businesses with operations in dozens of countries, Iger is forced to set a long-term strategic vision, communicate it effectively, manage complexity, and navigate daily between competing interest groups that include shareholders, customers, employees, regulators in a variety of industries, and foreign governments.
Then look at how he has performed in the job. Since he took over Disney in 2005, the company’s stock price has nearly quadrupled. Instead of resting on Disney’s considerable laurels, Iger reinvigorated the company with a series of bold acquisitions—Pixar, Marvel, and LucasFilm—that strengthened the company’s claim to be the greatest curator of America’s pop culture canon. Each one of those deals has enhanced Disney’s bottom line and required deft diplomacy to pull off—not everyone could have persuaded Steve Jobs, Isaac Perlmutter, and George Lucas to willingly let go of their prized possessions and trust they would be in good hands. Even more remarkable in the often poisonous, ego-rich world of Hollywood is the fact that most of the talent that came over to Disney with these companies continues to thrive. Indeed, Iger himself rose to be Disney CEO after the company he’d made his career at (ABC’s holding company) was acquired by Disney in 1996.
Clearly this is a leader who can get people from different factions and cultures to adapt to change and move forward together under a common vision. Unlike his predecessor, Michael Eisner, Iger keeps a relatively low profile, allowing his talent and stories to take center stage. We’ll know by the end of the year whether he’s wrecked or resurrected the Star Wars franchise, but assuming it’s the latter, he’d have my vote for president any day. But if you aren’t moved by my nomination from the Magic Kingdom, go ahead and nominate another CEO who’d be an intriguing candidate. Jamie Dimon (J.P. Morgan Chase), Ginni Rometty (IBM), and Mark Zuckerberg (though Facebook’s founder is still too young, absent a constitutional amendment) have been mentioned by colleagues.
But who are we kidding? These people, like most successful people outside of politics, have no appetite to do what Trump and Fiorina relish—to spout off the most outrageous things to attract attention and fringe voters, and to pander for months on end to idiosyncratic primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.
And so I am forced to downgrade my own expectations. Let’s nominate Iger to be the next president’s chief of staff.
Andrés Martinez is editorial director of Zócalo Public Square. He is also a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.
*Photo courtesy of REUTERS/China Daily.