Opinion: Why Would Any Self-Respecting CEO Want to Be President?

Many believe our system of government is dysfunctional. CEOs are convinced of it. Any leader who has been called to Washington to testify before a Congressional committee or appear before a regulatory inquiry would rather have their back teeth extracted without anesthesia. And what about the presidential contenders in this election year?

Sixty percent of Gallup poll respondents are unhappy with the two choices that have been presented to them. No doubt business leaders agree. Most think that there is a disconnect between presidents and the government and this is true even when the same political party runs both the presidency and Congress. But how can this be so?

Elaine C. Kamarck, a Senior Fellow in the Governance Studies program, as well as the Director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution, has just published “Why Presidents Fail And How They Can Succeed Again,” where she details exactly where government has gone off the rails. Kamarck argues that presidents today spend too much time talking and not enough time governing, and that they have allowed themselves to become more and more distant from the federal bureaucracy that is supposed to implement policy. After decades of “imperial” and “rhetorical” presidencies, she argues that we are in need of a “managerial” president. This White House insider and former Harvard academic explains the difficulties of governing in our modern political landscape.

For example, it’s no secret that secretaries of state have found themselves “out of the loop” and outmaneuvered by the president’s national security advisor. The best known example was Henry Kissinger running policy. This was much to the dismay of Secretary of State William Rogers owing to the fact that Nixon distrusted the State Department bureaucracy. In Roosevelt’s time, the Social Security Act—the most important piece of the New Deal—was run by Treasury Secretary Hans Morgenthau and not Labor Secretary Francis Perkins who was its architect. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala was given a back seat in two of the most important policy initiatives of the Clinton White House. She had to cede health care reform to Hillary Clinton and welfare reform to Domestic Policy Council aide Bruce Reed.

“More important from a management standpoint is the vast potential for distortion as the wishes of the president are passed along an extended chain of command.”

But the disconnect at the cabinet level is the least of it. Over the years, the size of the policy staff has grown and proliferated. Kamarck recalls scholar Stephen Hess warning as early as 1976  that, “the risks of imposing a large staff between the president and the departments are greater than in other types of large organizations…More important from a management standpoint is the vast potential for distortion as the wishes of the president are passed along an extended chain of command.”

Government has become an enormous and complex enterprise. Kamarck observes that at over $3 trillion in 2014 it is slightly larger than the combined revenues of 16 of the largest companies in the Fortune 500—Walmart through AmerisourceBergen. In terms of employment, Kamarck compares the federal government’s 4.2 million workers (including military personnel) to the total employment of the six largest U.S. companies: Walmart (2.2 million), McDonalds (420,000), IBM (412,775), Kroger (400,000), Home Depot (371,000), and Target (347,000), according to figures for 2014.

Even Peter Drucker would have argued that the span of control here is out of control.

During the Republican presidential primaries, two former CEOs—Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina of Hewlett-Packard argued over their business careers and whether it bestowed on them  special understanding of managing complex government. But comparing the size of government with organizations in the private sector is misleading. Kamarck argues that the two are fundamentally different.

  • The president manages a workforce divided into two classes of employees: career and political. Each has different time frames and different outlooks.
  • Budget rules impede managerial flexibility to a degree that would be unheard of in private business. (Wonder why Jack Welch repeatedly declined calls for him to run for public office?)
  • Finally, the president’s workforce does not, in fact, work just for the president. While career civil servants are part of the executive branch, they are, in many cases, more concerned with what Congress expects of them. Any way you slice it, Federal agencies have multiple boards of directors, something private sector CEOs wouldn’t stand for.
J.P. Donlon :J.P. Donlon is Editor Emeritus of Chief Executive magazine.