Throughout his 17-month campaign, Donald Trump’s decades of business experience were a precious asset in getting him elected president. But, after less than 150 days in office, that experience has not served him well. In fact, it is beginning to look like it has caused him many of his problems.
It turns out that little of what the president did to make billions marketing his name and negotiating deals prepared him for a world of congressional factions, party divisions, balky allies, constitutional restraints, assertive courts, constant press scrutiny, and checks and balances.
“It turns out he was vastly underprepared for this, and his business background really has not prepared him,” said Elaine Kamarck, director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution. In the Clinton White House, Kamarck spent four years looking for ways to bring private-business practices into government as head of the “reinventing government” initiative.
During the campaign, Trump often pledged to run government like he ran his own business. “Under budget and ahead of schedule,” he boasted. “We don’t hear those words so often, but you will.” In that, Trump was just the latest manifestation of a debate that has raged for almost two centuries: Do you want to “run government like a business”?
That idea was behind boomlets for Henry Ford in 1924, Wendell Willkie in 1940, Lee Iacocca in 1984, Peter Ueberroth in 1988, and Ross Perot in 1992. In 2012, Mitt Romney proposed amending the Constitution to require three years of business experience for any president. All made the pro-business argument; none became president. The closest to a businessman becoming a president before Trump was Herbert Hoover in 1928. But he ascended to the White House from a Cabinet post, not from a corporate boardroom.
Trump succeeded where all others had failed. Gallup last year found that being a “good businessman” was Trump’s second most attractive trait, behind only the fact that he was not a career politician. The Pew Research Center reported that Republicans were 33 percent more likely to support a candidate who was a business executive, while only 13 percent were less likely.
But, now that he is in government, the debate has shifted. For the president today, the focus is not on whether business practices can succeed in government. Instead, it is on whether Trump’s particular business experience prepared him for today’s presidency. In his short time in office, Trump has encountered several challenges that were not factors in his business life:
- Checks and balances.
- The importance of Congress.
- The courts.
- Press scrutiny that is constant and unrelenting, and not as easily influenced as when he was dealing with New York City tabloids.
- Government appointees swearing loyalty to the Constitution, not to him personally.
- A public that cannot be ignored as it could in a family-owned business.
- Washington moving at a pace slow enough to frustrate any president.
- Leaks that he controlled as a businessman, but can’t in Washington.
- Limits on what he can do on his own.
In defense, Republicans stress Trump’s newness to government. House Speaker Paul Ryan said he should be given a break for his interactions with then-FBI Director James Comey because he’s “new to government,” adding, “So he probably wasn’t steeped in the long-running protocols that establish the relationships between [the Justice Department], FBI, and White Houses.”
Philip Joyce, an expert in this area, doesn’t accept that rationale. “If you are doing something that is new, it is incumbent on you to learn what the rules are of the game you are now playing,” said Joyce, senior associate dean and professor of public policy in the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. He said Trump has learned that the issues he faced in business “were not as complicated and not as fraught with political peril” as those he faces today.
“It appears to have surprised him that there are as many checks on his powers as there are and that there is a big difference between issuing executive orders, which he can do unilaterally, and trying to get laws passed by Congress,” Joyce said.
Dennis Eckart, a longtime Democratic member of Congress, later served as president of the nation’s largest Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Cleveland Growth Association. Now in private practice, Eckart told National Journal that Trump has learned that “his business experience is not necessarily very relevant or helpful to him now.” He added, “A CEO of a closely held, family-owned business has none of the experiences needed to deal with the multi-headed facets of government, where power is diverse, not concentrated; where accountability is public, not private; and where profits are not just the measuring stick.”
Eckart said in Trump’s previous world, “there was a patriarchal figure and if you didn’t do what Dad wants, you may not be in the will.” Now, he has learned that “Paul Ryan doesn’t care if he’s in Donald Trump’s will. John Roberts is not waiting to see what the bequest is in Trump’s will.”
Kamarck said Trump’s learning curve has been steeper than is normal for a businessman coming to Washington. “I’ve seen many businessmen in government,” she said. “They do have to learn they can’t send their secretaries out to buy anniversary presents and get the dry cleaning. They tend to stumble around on small things like that. … We had a lot of businessmen in the Clinton administration. Some were better than others. But they basically got it. That’s why I think this is much more serious than just the transition from business to government.”
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