CEO In Chief? A Business Background Is Rare For Presidents

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Republican Mitt Romney is running on the strength of his business background. He says he knows how to fix the economy, in part because of his success at Bain Capital. But history is not necessarily on Romney's side. Very few businesspeople have made it to the White House.

The transition from business to politics isn't necessarily an easy one.

Over the years, a lot of businesspeople have decided to pour their energy and money into politics. And Susan MacManus, who teaches government and international affairs at the University of South Florida, says lately the number has been growing.

"Part of that is because they see that the country's finances are not headed in the right direction, and they see a very receptive public who understands that things need to change in Washington with regards to the budget," she says.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner and New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg all were successful businesspeople before they became politicians. Now, Romney is trying for the biggest prize of all.

There haven't been many businesspeople in the White House — Herbert Hoover and George W. Bush are among the very few. Yale University's Jeffrey Garten, who served in several administrations in Washington, says knowledge of business is a real advantage for a president — especially at a time of deepening anxiety about the economy.

"The most important thing when it comes to business is that whoever is president understands the business world and has the wherewithal to know what the private sector can do, when they're being sold a bill of goods, and how to surround himself with the right kind of private sector advisers," Garten says.

Garten says that doesn't mean a president has to come directly out of the corporate world, but he has to understand it.

Former Republican Rep. Mickey Edwards says many successful CEOs are good at big-picture thinking — understanding all the component parts of a problem. But Edwards also says that business and politics are very different endeavors, and that someone who succeeds in one won't necessarily do well in another.

"To run around saying we must run government like a business is really a silly idea," Edwards says. "It shows a total lack of understanding of the purposes of government."

Businesses generally have one goal — to make profits. But MacManus, of the University of South Florida, says presidents have responsibilities that are harder to put a price tag on — like protecting public safety.

She says businesspeople also come from a world where hierarchy is clearly defined and people generally do what they say. Governors and presidents have to share power with legislators, who answer only to their own constituents.

"So you're trying to deal with a body that's essential to getting your policy through but looks at things through very different lenses than you do, and specifically different demographics they represent and different political leanings," MacManus says. "It's very tough."

Politicians who run for office promising to create jobs misunderstand the nature of the position they're seeking, Edwards says.

"Presidents don't have that power," he says. "Presidents don't create jobs; presidents can maybe help if they can get Congress to go along with them. They might be able to help shape a policy that is more encouraging, more incentive-laden for job creation."

Edwards says Romney probably understands that because he also served as governor of Massachusetts, where he regularly had to work with Democrats. Romney may be running on his business record, but it's seasoned with something he's less inclined to emphasize — his stint in politics.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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