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Op-Ed

Is Business Experience Enough to Be President?

Robert E. Litan

How to react to presidential candidates who are running, in part or wholly, on their experience in private business?

It’s impossible for anyone to come into the White House with all the skills required to be a good president. We can know that key traits include intelligence, both cognitive and emotional; self-confidence; and decisiveness. Also needed are the ability to communicate; to listen and learn; to delegate; to recognize problems–and a sense of humor and humility.

Candidates’ stands on the issues are critical in primaries and in the general election, but I suspect that the views of many independent voters–whose ranks are growing–may not be as intensely held as those of partisan voters.

Given Americans’ widespread frustration with traditional politicians, it is understandable why a few candidates with at least some business experience have entered the fray. Having run a business exposes one to how government affects the private sector, which is the engine of economic growth and drives improvements in living standards.

But running a private-sector business is very different from heading a federal government that employs millions, and that takes in and spends trillions, while also dealing with a wide range of domestic and foreign policy issues, many of which demand immediate attention. These things require dexterity–and the combined challenges are ones that no business ever comes close to dealing with. (Probably the closest experience to the presidency is running a large state. But even then, no governor has had to confront the range of foreign policy challenges facing the president.)

A critical difference between running a business and government is that CEOs can usually make sure that their orders are carried out; and if they’re not, those who didn’t do their jobs can be fired. Imagine a president tried working with Congress that way. “My way or the highway” won’t cut it.

One might think that military leaders would face the same problem, but successful generals, especially in recent times, have had to develop and hone political skills as well as knowing how to fight. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower is now regarded as a good president not only because of his military experience but because he also was a politician-administrator while commanding allied forces during World War II. George Washington had both a military and business background, but he was a politician too–and the government he oversaw wasn’t much larger than his (substantial) private business.

Some 2016 voters will cast ballots based on particular issues. But for others, particularly those who believe this country is on the wrong track, a candidate running on his or her business background in an effort to stand out from the pack is not likely to have the qualifications most important to being a successful president.

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