In the wake of a tumultuous election week, Chief Executive spoke with Mark Weinberger, former CEO of EY and a veteran of public sector posts for both Republican and Democratic administrations, about what the likely outcome will mean for business.
Among other Washington posts, you served as assistant secretary of treasury under G.W. Bush administration and on President Clinton’s Social Security Advisory Board. Watching the results of the 2020 election unfold, what’s your outlook on where we stand and what the next four years will bring?
Mark Weinberger: Well, we knew it was coming. It’s like watching a car crash, you know, it’s coming slow motion, but you can’t look away. In all honesty, clearly, we’re more divided than ever. But that’s not news. The interesting thing is that the people in their infinite wisdom recognized that dividing the power between the Senate and the presidency was not a bad thing. There was quite a bit of a split vote, an incredibly close race across the whole country. Joe Biden will presumably [be the next president], but the people have sent more Republicans to the house than before and kept, it looks like, the number of Republicans in the Senate.
That just doesn’t happen. Usually the winner carries the party with them into power. To me, and everybody can read their own thing into it, but my read is that President Trump lost on personality and Biden lost on policy. People are saying, we don’t want Trump.
There are a lot of moderates who just didn’t like the way he led and the way he did things. So, they joined up with an expanded populous of people who didn’t vote before and to narrowly defeat him. But at the same time, these people who came to vote are saying, we don’t want the Democrats to be able to do everything we’re hearing and reading that they may want Biden to do. So, these moderates are going to continue to vote or now newly vote for Republicans to provide a check and balance. That’s my takeaway. I’ve worked for both. I worked for every president since Clinton, and I go both ways, as they say. But I’m actually okay and relieved that we’re going to have this check and balance in place because my policy views are probably very centrist. And you don’t want it to be pulled left or right if you’re a centrist.
As someone who worked for both administrations on issues like trade and tax policy, areas where the Trump administration got quite a bit done, how are you feeling about how the transition will impact some of the headway made in those areas?
I think that in the divided government that we see now, you will see a moderated approach on either undoing old things or doing new things. What we did see under Trump was the incredible ability of a president to do lots of things through regulatory change, even if you can’t get major legislative initiatives through. And so, he did. I’m guessing this expanded view of what the executive branch could do will carry over to the next presidency—let’s say it’s Biden—and he’ll do more to undo some of what Trump did and [use it] to do things that he would want to do. The big difference is that, Trump at least had a Senate that was Republican with him, that would approve who he wanted. The Republicans are going to challenge nominations, and that makes it harder, so because of the people in place, he may not have as much unbridled ability as he would if he controlled the Senate. But I think you’ll see President Biden try and do a lot of things through the executive branch but be stymied by gridlock because we’re not going to be able to get much through Congress, frankly, over the next couple of years, from a policy perspective with a split government like this.
So, we’ll move from the executive branch taking on more power back to a situation where there won’t be much working across the aisle and nothing much will get done. And that’s a good thing or a bad thing?
I’m not really judging, because, first of all, where you stand will depend on where you sit. If you like what a president is doing, you want them to have more power. If you don’t, you should want them to have less—that’s where most people generally seem to come out and they rationalize their view based on of that, honestly. But let’s face it, you have a whole bunch of things that the Senate could do on confirmations, on oversight and funding that will provide a check that didn’t exist on President Trump as much because Democrats only had the House, right.
Listen, it’s not supposed to work that way. You’re supposed to work through the legislative process to get things done. But as an American citizen, it is frustrating looking at what China’s doing with technology, at countries moving at speed when we can’t seem to come up with national policies as much as we would like to because of the bitter fighting and the gridlock. So, my personal view—again where you stand is where you sit—I was pleased that some of the regulatory burden and the regulatory pressures that existed for a while were relieved in the last many years that that allowed business to prosper. So that was a good thing. But on the other hand, if I didn’t like the way that they came out, I would be worried that there’d be too much power. It’s a really a good civics question.
With a Republican Senate, assuming it goes the way it looks like it will, serving as a check and balance, what is your outlook for the business climate—optimistic, pessimistic or flat?
I’m always optimistic. First of all, government will have an impact, but we’ve seen governments swing both ways, pretty severely, and somehow we all survive. I think that we’re on the cusp with some of the things we’re seeing business step up and do around the social issues where government hasn’t been able to move, like continuing on climate change initiatives even though the government presence wasn’t supportive, we’ve seen the business community continue to move in a direction to address those issues. We see more engagement around social justice and [companies] building that into their business models. We’ve seen the business community step up and take care of their workers through the pandemic, making they were safe when governments and states were doing all different things and different points of view were out there.
There’s not a CEO I’m aware of who didn’t recognize that no matter how difficult it was from a business standpoint, their employees and the safety of them came first. You saw that over and over again. Those are all positive things that I think will continue. The concern I would have would be massive new regulations or costs put on business that would stifle our ability to do that. In a divided government, it’s going to be harder to get those things done. One example would be the significant tax increase on business is probably going to be more difficult to get to the level that President Biden ran on with a Republican Senate. So, I’m not concerned that government is going to bring down the opportunity that’s out there.