The President is not the CEO of the Country

During tonight’s Democratic Presidential debate, Howard Meyerson of Pasadena submitted a question suggesting that the President is like the “CEO of the country” and asking Senators Clinton and Obama why they would be a better choice than Mitt Romney when they have never run a large business.

I think Mr. Meyerson’s premise that the President is like the CEO of the country is false. Before explaining why, let me first posit that what Mr. Meyerson really meant to say is that the President is like the “CEO of the U.S. government”. 

Now, there are some superficial similarities between the President and the CEO of a corporation:

  1. Both are the highest ranking person within the organizations they lead (the government and the corporation).
  2. Both must ultimately accept the responsibility for the success or failure of their organizations.
  3. Both must possess strong leadership and management skills.

But the similarities end there. Unlike a CEO, the President of the United States does not have full authority over all parts of the U.S. government; in particular, he cannot simply order Congress to pass laws and approve funding at the levels that he wants. Instead, he must work with members of both parties who have very different views on many issues and either persuade them to enact his policies or reach compromises with them.  Naturally, he doesn’t even get to choose the members of Congress the way a CEO can choose who to hire and fire.  A CEO of a corporation must also persuade his employees in order to be effective but does not have to deal with the level of opposition that the President does.

In fact, the President doesn’t even get to select the members of his cabinet and other key members of the executive branch without the Senate’s approval. Furthermore, certain important members of the executive branch such as the Attorney General are expected to demonstrate independence from the President and avoid politicization of the Justice Department.  So, it would not even be accurate to depict the President as the CEO of the executive branch of the U.S. government.

The President must have leadership qualities and management skills that are similar to those of an effective CEO, but he or she must also understand that a government is not a business and that they cannot just order everyone in Washington to do what they want. They must also be capable of convincing the American public to support their policies. It is interesting that CEOs like Ross Perrot and Steve Forbes who ran for President failed to win the elections they ran in. This might be a valuable lesson for Michael Bloomberg to keep in mind.


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