Trump’s Business Background Doesn’t Help in Politics

In a private company, the boss makes unilateral decisions to increase profits. A president contends with checks and balances to serve the public good.

The Trump International Hotel, formerly the Old Post Office building, is seen on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, early Friday, March 31, 2017.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
June 18, 2017, 8 p.m.

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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