Campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney continues to assert that his private-sector experience makes him particularly suited to the office of president. That experience, he emphasizes, would be central to his unique capacity to turn the economy around, keep it growing and create jobs. He may be right. But a review of recent U.S. history offers little evidence that private-sector experience is linked to presidential success.
Since 1901, 21 men have served as president; 16 had no real experience as a businessperson in the private sector. That latter group included the following: Theodore Roosevelt, who operated a cattle ranch in the Dakotas; Woodrow Wilson, who served as president of Princeton University; Harry Truman, who owned a haberdashery (he went bankrupt) for a few years in Kansas City, Mo.; and Ronald Reagan, who served as president of the Screen Actors Guild and as a spokesperson for General Electric. But none of these positions qualify as major private-sector business experience. None of the men ran a large business organization.
What most marks the pre-presidential careers of these 16 presidents is extensive public-sector experience, much of it in elective office. Some, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower(military), John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnsonand Bill Clinton, had pre-presidential careers that were almost exclusively in the public sector.
As a predictor of presidential success, public-sector experience has a mixed record. According to a review of 17 recent efforts to rank presidents, including those conducted by C-SPAN and the Wall Street Journal, several presidents with considerable public-sector experience rank below average or worse — Calvin Coolidge and Richard Nixon among them. By contrast, several presidents with almost exclusively public-sector experience are widely regarded as having had relatively or very successful presidencies. This list includes both Roosevelts, Wilson, Truman, Eisenhower and, to a lesser extent, Kennedy, Johnson and Reagan.
A review of the five presidents who did have extensive private-sector experience is somewhat more instructive. Warren Harding was a newspaper publisher. Herbert Hoover was an engineer who managed mining operations. Jimmy Carter was a peanut farmer. Both Bushes had longtime experience in the oil business, andGeorge W. Bush was a managing partner of a baseball team. None of these five presidents rank above average, and three — George W. Bush, Harding and Hoover — are near the bottom of most rankings.
The samples of 21 presidents overall and the five with private-sector experience are far too small to draw firm conclusions. But the review suggests, at minimum, that private-sector business experience is neither a great predictor of presidential success nor — given the success of many presidents with no private-sector experience — a prerequisite for presidential success.
Moreover, even a rudimentary analysis of history and politics suggests that success in public leadership may require a very different set of skills than that required in private-sector leadership.
Private-sector executives have a much clearer measuring stick that can define direction and success: specifically, a bottom line, defined in terms of growth and/or profit. For presidents, goal-setting and definitions of success are more complex, more likely to change over time and, given much greater levels of subjectivity, harder to assess. In their non-bottom-line world, perception can sometimes be almost as important as reality.
Private-sector executives also have far fewer constituencies that need to be accommodated. Though their firms will encounter competition, they personally do not face a built-in opposition and do not have to be overly concerned about negative effects on others, at least so long as they are achieving definable organizational goals. Theirs is a competitive universe, and losing is part of it.
Presidents, by contrast, almost inevitably confront a concerted and organized opposition. They must try to satisfy multiple constituencies that, if too displeased, have built-in means of fighting back. They may certainly favor some constituencies, but much of the time they must at least try to appear as if they are serving — or at least trying not to harm — all of them.
Most important, executives in the private sector have more power to command and, in a way, far more authority to get what they want done. Presidents, as political scientist Richard Neustadt cogently explained years ago, must rely more on persuasion than command. American governmental structures and processes put too much power in too many places — much of it shared — to enable command to get a president very far. Success in the presidency relies more on the ability to persuade, negotiate and compromise, and to do so in both public and private arenas and with inside- and outside-the-Beltway constituencies, including the public.
One is reminded, in this regard, of the remark attributed to outgoing President Truman in reference to incoming President Eisenhower. “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike; it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it frustrating.”
Should he win the presidency, Romney’s private-sector experience might serve him well. But history suggests no inevitability; in all probability, his service as governor and his six-year pursuit of the presidency will prove far more valuable.
Walter Zelman has a doctorate in American politics and is chairman of the Department of Public Health at Cal State Los Angeles.