The "President as CEO" Myth
It has been a few days since I’ve written anything here. Between stepped-up projects at work, graduate school applications, and managing a fully configurable PresidentBot simulation, it’s been a busy time. And when I’m not working, the events of the 2012 Presidential campaign have been sucking up an appreciable fraction of my free time. The months of October and November this year are going to be a little crazy for me personally. However, I just wanted to record a recent thought I had – surely not an original one. I’ve just finally figured out why the “President-as-CEO” metaphor has always struck me as somewhat false and pat – upon examination I actually think it’s pretty wildly wrong.
The goal driving the CEO is clear – making the company money. Furthermore, the goal of the people working below him is also pretty clear – making the company money. Throughout the company, projects and strategies are judged by a single and fairly clear set of criteria – does the company make money? Now, of course there is the perennial principal-agent problem which consultants harp on endlessly – often managers up to and including the CEO have interests other than just making the company money. These may be personal enrichment, glory, promotion or more idiosyncratic concerns. However, the ultimate end of all actions is understood by all participants and so is the ultimate criteria by which to judge success.
That description should demonstrate why political leadership is wildly different. The President runs a party comprised of wholly different interest groups who might have dramatically differing views of what politics is “for”. People usually agree on economic growth as a good thing…but most seniors would be happy to sacrifice economic growth in return for inflation protection. Wall Street social liberals have very different priorities than Southern labor organizers. And on top of all of that, there is another hostile party that is nominally subordinate to you but is out to get your goat. Much as McD’s faces competition from Burger King, the McD’s CEO doesn’t need their cooperation to get anything done. Leadership here is completely different than in the corporate world, and strikes me as harder.
There is one important (if lesser) way that the metaphor does hold up – the administrative aspect. Time is a limited resource, delegation is important, and competing projects and egos can completely derail goals. The President really is the CEO of the Executive Branch, and poor managers can screw it up royally. But companies work towards goals set by the market, and have a single compelling objective that is known and unquestioned – make more profit. The really hard part of the Presidency is figuring out what those objectives must be.
Of course, those objectives don’t emerge from nowhere – they emerge from the priorities of the Party and the President himself. Given the institutional goals of the Republican Party (lower taxes, no abortions, war with Iran) and Mr. Romney’s apparent total lack of personal political beliefs, I think Mr. Romney’s moderate past should provide little comfort to moderate skeptics.