Mr. Business Owner…I Mean, Mr. President…
Let’s just dive right in…
Business owners traditionally make poor political leaders. This is true for one reason. Business owners are use to having their directives followed without question. But, that’s simply not how democratic governments work when it comes to the person at the top. Instead, they work solely upon the ability of the person at the top to develop a consensus of agreement. The question is not how powerful their personality is so much as it is how well they can get along with others who have different ideas. That mechanism is almost directly contrary to most business owners, where they usually can call all of the shots, and whatever he or she asks for is something which employees, who want to keep their jobs, had better deliver. In a democracies, everyone one elected to a lesser position than the Commander-in-Chief, is, none the less elected to their position and therefore cannot be fired or have their opinions simply ignored without potential consequences. If the person at the top doesn’t respect that truth and have the temperament to get others to work with them, they are NOT going to succeed and are soon likely to find themselves replaced.
Nowhere in my memory, is that truth more important than right now, in America. Donald Trump, who is use to everyone around him jumping to follow his every whim is about to meet President Trump, who will find himself in a calderan of political agendas with the need to motivate and convince 535 elected Senators and Congressional Representatives to agree with him before he can do ANYTHING!!! We can argue about a lot of things, but one thing is almost as absolute as the sun coming up tomorrow… Mr. Trump HAS NEVER FUNCTIONED IN THIS TYPE OF ENVIRONMENT EVER BEFORE.
While Mr. Trump has never been in this place before, America has.
Let’s look back at another American President to get a clearer picture of what may soon be about to happen in America, today. I think you will find some of the correlations strikingly similar.Think back to the last one term Democratic President, Jimmy Carter. I remember well when he began his campaign for the Presidency. Carter went from town to town to find people who would support his “outsider” bid for the office. He was warm, congenial, affable, and laid back. His signature greeting, “Hi I’m Jimmy Carter, and I’d like to be your next President.” was received as ‘refreshing’ after the prior nightmare years of government gone wrong.
The years immediately before Carter’s candidacy had seen the deep divide between the right and left and the end of the Vietnam War. America had witnessed the near collapse of our democratic system during the Watergate years where government intelligence personnel and elected officials had illegally spied on the Party which was not in power in order to keep it that way. In the aftermath of that debacle the nation witnessed the unprecedented resignation of a President under threat of Impeachment, and then somewhat lackluster interim years of President Gerald Ford. In short the nation was ripe for something different. People were tired of government not working anymore and the rally cry of the day was, “CHANGE!”
Jimmy Carter was hardly the almost ‘simple’ character that some people saw in his candidacy. He was a graduate of The United States Naval Academy, with a distinguished naval career, and was chosen by Admiral Hyman Rickover to be a part of the newly envisioned nuclear submarine program. As a part of that project he did his graduate work at Union College in nuclear physics. But Carter left his rising navy to return to Plains, Georgia to run his family’s farm business when his father died in 1953. He and his wife Rosalynn were successful in that endeavor, and that success gave Carter that humble, ‘average sort of guy next door’ image which became the very platform for his success as a politician. He represented CHANGE from the typical politician. Even though Mr. Carter had been involved in politics at more local levels, as he rose through political ranks from the local County Supervisor’s Board, the local Hospital Authority Board… even an election to the local Library Board, he never lost his trademark, ‘home town boy’ appeal – which eventually led him to a successful bid to become Governor of Georgia in 1971 after previously being defeated for the office the previous term.
So when Governor Carter began his campaign for President in 1974, he began that endeavor using a sort of ‘Small Town Values’ and a ‘Common Sense Approach’ to changing government. He promised to fix what was wrong in Washington and to give government back to the people, again. He took that message person to person at first, speaking in small local gatherings almost night and day for two years. The campaign promoted that image so much so that they would even drive Mr. Carter to the outskirts of towns where the candidate would get out and walk into town just to complete the image of a ‘Common Man’ who was NOT doing things like other politicians had done before. Walking up to people on the streets, Jimmy would shake hands in a warm friendly manner and talk about common interests. Eventually he would announce a small public meeting in town later that day and ask people to come along with their friends. That was NOT like any Presidential candidate had ever campaigned before. I remember well, reading some back page article in some magazine talking about the man from Georgia who was walking around campaigning to change America and I was intrigued – along with a growing number of people who saw a chance to finally shake things up and change America!
His message resonated with a national public who were sick of professional politicians who seemed more interested in scoring party line points than they were in the actual ‘grunt work’ of the daily running of a government. The setting where all of this played out could not have been more perfect for this type of candidacy. It was the 200th Anniversary Celebration of the founding of America – 1976! People had a sense that something had gone horribly wrong with our democracy and held a general feeling that government was no longer listening to the needs of the average person on the streets. Then, along came someone with a clean record and who had limited political experience but had apparently used his business experience coupled with a common sense approach to overhaul his state’s government. People could smell an odor of PROFOUND CHANGE in the air, and so, in November of 1976, Jimmy Carter, a small town businessman from the tiny town of Plains, Georgia became America’s 39th President.
Before I go on, you need to understand this one point…I’m a huge fan of President Carter. I voted for him – not once but twice. I think that he has been greatly underrated in both his administration’s accomplishments and his vision for America. His Camp David Accords, the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, the SALT II treaty with the Soviet Union, and the establishment of U.S. diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China are just a few examples of who he really is as a person and as a leader. His environmental, human rights, and educational efforts were nothing short of historic.
Moreover, I should think that most people have changed their opinion of him to a more favorable view, if nothing else, simply from his accomplishments after he left the presidency. He has authored twenty nine books (and counting) – including many best sellers. He has been called upon to successfully negotiate tenuous terrorist/hostage situations, which include; conflict mediation in Ethiopia and Eritrea (1989), North Korea (1994), Liberia (1994), Haiti (1994), Bosnia (1994), Sudan (1995), the Great Lakes region of Africa (1995-96), Sudan and Uganda (1999), Venezuela (2002-2003), Nepal (2004-2008), Ecuador and Colombia (2008), and the Middle East (2003-present). Under his leadership The Carter Center has sent one hundred election-observation missions to the Americas, Africa, and Asia. These include Panama (1989), Nicaragua (1990), China (1997), Nigeria (1998), Indonesia (1999), East Timor (1999), Mexico (2000), Guatemala (2003), Venezuela (2004), Ethiopia (2005), Liberia (2005), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2006), Nepal (2008), Lebanon (2009), Sudan (2010), Tunisia (2011), Egypt (2011-2012), Kenya (2013), Mozambique (2014), and Guyana (2015)! And, for all of this, he became a Nobel Peace Prize recipient in 2002. Jimmy Carter does not have to hang his head at all regarding his life’s contributions to America and the world.
However, even with all of this in his favor, his presidency is often seen as ineffective, and essentially as a failure in fulfilling its promises to fix government and give it back to the people. This is reflective of his single term in office and his very low approval ratings upon leaving the office.
But how could such a perceived ‘change agent’ and an initially very popular President, who went to Washington to fix the broken system see such poor approval ratings after only 4 years in office? I submit to you that, in part, it could be, an endemic problem of many business owners approaches to using their business leadership methods in solving the problems in Washington. A business owner, CEO background usually does not fare well in politics – especially at the federal level. The reason is fairly simple to diagnose – business owners have succeeded largely because in their business environment their word is essentially the final word. After all, they own the business and so have the right to hire and fire based upon how their personnel follow their instructions. It has to be hard to make the shift from leaving an environment where the business has your name on the sign. Often, those people essentially are NOT experienced in building consensus – rather, they are use to their word being law. That is NOT THE CASE in presidential politics. Successful Presidents almost always succeed on this single point – whether or not they are able to build consensus between divergent opinions – PERIOD!
Almost immediately upon taking office Jimmy Carter faced opposition from within his own party. The Washington establishment – both Republican and Democratic officials, came into the Carter years having been shaken up by an ‘outsider’ who promised to shake up the control those groups had on government. They took an almost immediate ‘wait and see’ attitude to this person whom they saw as a small town, homespun, interloper with a very limited track record of high level public service. The Democratic Party was further concerned how this Southern Baptist, apparent evangelical was going to mesh with issues which had been championed by their party – specifically issues such as civil rights, welfare, the economy, women’s rights, labor issues, and abortion. Eventually the party in which Carter won his election would come to a sort of ‘negotiated peace’ with this new administration, and Carter was never able to fully shake off these early suspicions among the Washington bureaucracy. At the offset of his new administration, Mr. Carter was faced with a scenario of having to show leadership that was completely different from his experience as a business owner of a family held business or even from that of a Southern Governor, at that time in America. His failure to win consensus became the downfall of his administration, and it began at the ground floor level of his own party. He could not inspire others to come to a workable consensus.
Now, please let me quickly acknowledge that there were, obviously MANY factors in America at the time which would have played a role in thwarting Carter’s administration – a slowed economy, the sluggish jobs market which was seeing the early effects of globalization, the usual party in fighting issues, perhaps even Carter’s personality, and undoubtedly many, many others. Moreover, to infer that a person with a business owner back ground couldn’t be a type of person who could successfully work in a government environment would be ludicrous. But, I will say one thing with certainty. There are people who have run their businesses with an attitude which goes something like this, “I’m in charge here and it’s gonna be my way or the highway, because I’m the boss! If you don’t like it, you’re fired!”
DON’T expect that to work in Washington – not now, not ever!
Why not? Because Washington is an environment where no one own is in charge for long. The very people that one has to work with in order to be successful are also often people who might be in the process of planning their own future time in your office. Even if that is not the case, they certainly have no lack of understanding that they do not have to simply kowtow to the President’s every whim. Their attitude is most assuredly something more like,“He’s not My boss! The people back home are!”
As I write this blog article, I am also keeping an eye on the television at the same time, and watching the news as the early stages begin for the transition of power to a Donald Trump Presidency. Just a moment ago they spoke of the difficulty of choosing the more than 4000 jobs that the new President will need to fill in the next 65 days. Keep in mind that these are only the jobs that change with a new administration. But that total number represents only a small portion of the total bureaucracy that actually does the work of running our government. It’s in the small cubicles among the vast government departmental agencies that the real work gets done. The lion’s share of those people are deeply entrenched within the government system itself – many of them with seniority, if not tenured, positions which will not easily change with this or any other election. If you worked at one of those cubicles how quickly would you implement directives from someone who essentially wants to take away your employment as a part of a ‘Draining the Swamp’ initiative? How many memos could, ‘sadly’ go missing or be misunderstood? Especially when the very people who would be at risk of seeing their jobs disappear also know that there are always numerous numbers of Senators and Representatives who would be quick to lend their support to any one who might be trying to undermine the elimination of any department or government program because those Senators and Representatives were adamantly opposed to the new administration’s initiatives to begin with?
You have to grapple with the fact that departments and programs in government translate into committees and sub committees in Congress. In other words, there are Senators and Representatives who oversee those departments and programs – it’s their ‘baby’ so to speak. No one likes their ‘baby’ being tweaked without their approval and they certainly don’t want it to me minimized or eliminated. It might make a powerful campaign sound bite for some to say “When I’m elected,I’m going to eliminate the Department of Energy!” But to even think of seeing that promise through in the real world, means you have to convince people in the Congress to actually want to diminish their role in government – Not an easy task to accomplish.
Mr. Obama, the current President just said on national television as I am writing this post, that America, “is not a dingy, it’s a mighty Ocean Liner. It takes a lot of time, thought and effort to turn this ship in any new direction.” Does Mr. Trump have the experience to work within that reality and with the reality that not everyone who he needs to make the changes he want to see will agree with him? Or that he can’t fire them just because they disagree with the “Boss”? These will be totally new waters for him to sail.
Moreover, the news correspondents have already been reporting the deep divides within even the Republican Party about certain new appointments. At the same time, thousand of protesters have been taking to the street for the past week to underscore how deeply divided the nation is at the present time. It cannot be diminished that the new Congress will likely face a plethora of complaints about coming proposed policy changes even before the new congress convenes – and certainly after any initial failures of Mr. Trump’s administration. If the authority of your elected position was being questioned even before you started to work, how quickly would you be interested to initiate any abrupt change?
This is the reality that Mr. Trump will face in the first 100 days of his administration, and, the question is, will Donald Trump’s personality be able to work with people who are not merely his employees or someone ‘applying for a job’ with him. who will not see his word as law, as it would have been in his business endeavors, or who see him as a potential threat to their future?
We have no history to fall back upon to gauge the likelihood of his potential success or failure due to the fact that there has never been a candidate who assumed the office of President with no public service experience, with a populace who are so divided upon which way the nation needs to go, and with so many defections within his own party. This is indeed new ground we are walking upon.
Jimmy Carter faced significantly fewer challenges when he took office. And, yet, the notably affable, easy going, and “broadly smiling” Mr. Carter was not able to overcome the obstacles of creating a coalition that would guarantee the success of his administration. The question is, “Will Donald Trump?”
I cannot overstate the importance of the fact that experience in business is not like experience in government. The political system is NOT one which embraces someone who likes to ‘tell’ others what to do rather than engage others to support their vision. The ‘other people’ in government will, invariably feel the weight of decisions from the top much sooner than the President will. If the people are NOT convinced of the changes they see, Senators and Congressmen will face the wrath of the people sooner than Mr. Trump, and that fact will determine whether or not his administration will continue to have the advantage of it’s supposed ‘control of the congress’ behind him.That is like saying someone has control of a beehive that’s been swatted with a stick. I must also state that that advantage may be in doubt at the offset because he must now work with people within his own party who opposed him. Moreover, as we have seen many times in our history, there are people within the bureaucracy who will ultimately determine whether or not Mr. Trump’s policies succeed. They are the ones who may balk at implementing his decisions or perhaps even begin to outright undermine how his policies are approached at the everyday, working level.
You have to understand that the idea of “Draining the Swamp” may seem to be a noble and workable concept on the campaign trail. But those ideas have to be translated into policy and then successfully negotiated with Senators and Congressmen. Finally those policies have to be accomplished through the day to day work of thousands of governmental personnel – who are the very people that face the elimination of their jobs as a part of the ‘Swamp’ that is supposed to be ‘Drained’. Keep in mind that Congress is not going to be “Drained” – they’re right to govern is by the same decision of the people as the President’s is.
All of this will play out before our eyes in the coming days and months. You have to consider that this will all play out with a less than 1% razor’s edge in the electoral college vote and a popular vote that was not behind Mr. Trump by more than 600,000 votes. And, it will play out in a global atmosphere where our relationships with our allies are at an all time low since World War 2, and one in which we are, supposedly, about to cancel Trade Agreements which were made in good faith and which we vowed to support.
Finally, there is the unknown factor of temperament. Will Donald Trump be able to work with the nations of the world without the advantage of his business owner, CEO experience where everyone has to do as the “Boss” says? How will Mr. Trump react if he faces backlashes from his own Party, from the people, and from the world at large?
We are about to find out!
I’m Steven Phillips. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog.
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