Can you run the presidency like a CEO?

If you want a succinct description of Donald Trump’s erratic, often wild policy flip-flops, I suggest you pull up Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong on YouTube and listen to their version of the old standard “Undecided”:

“First you say you do, and then you don’t. Then you say you will, and then you won’t. You’re undecided now, so what are you gonna do?”

First Trump promised to replace Obamacare with something better. Then he didn’t. He vowed to launch a trade war with China, then he rushed to protect Chinese electronics giant ZTE. He said he’d renegotiate NAFTA because he’s a great deal-maker; now internal White House emails reveal a totally chaotic approach to that. And so it goes.

The problem is not that Trump is genuinely undecided, nor is he crafting some method amidst this madness. Rather, the problem is that he has no capacity to make these decisions in the first place. The reason: Trump is a businessman first and last. And being a CEO turns out to be no real qualification for being president.

Let’s start with this basic distinction: a business is not the same thing as The Economy. The primary purpose of a business is to generate profit. Overseeing an entire economy means promoting the greatest opportunity for the greatest number and balancing the equally important and legitimate claims that different groups have to that opportunity. Those are two very different objectives.

CEO Trump simply can’t see the difference. He has spent his career viewing his business operations as a zero-sum, us-versus-them proposition. He appears incapable of seeing the world in a more expansive, more nuanced way. So when he issues some edict to benefit one of his constituencies on Monday and then discovers on Tuesday that the edict will damage another group, he flails. Information overload.

Before Trump, only two presidents touted their business experience when they ran for office: Herbert Hoover and George W. Bush. Hoover was a self-made millionaire engineer and Bush, though his own business career was largely one of failure, campaigned as the first president with an MBA. Remember that they presided over the two most devastating economic collapses of the modern era.

But even those two had spent time in public service. Hoover was Secretary of Commerce. Bush was governor of Texas. Not so Trump, who had never spent a day serving the public interest before his inauguration. He has always been about his father’s real estate business, and as a consequence he can’t conceive of what the common good even looks like, much less how to achieve it. He’s never had the experience.

The even more fundamental problem with having a CEO as president is that they are used to operating in a system which is not democratic and where they sit atop the pyramid of power. Presidents don’t, and by Constitutional design. The presidency is only one-third of the three co-equal branches of government. Those holding the office don’t get what they want when they want it, again by design.

The checks-and-balances system clearly infuriates CEO Trump. He has no working relationship with Congress, despite the fact that it is controlled by his own party. He has repeatedly disparaged the integrity of the federal judiciary. He can’t even work with his own officials when they are loyal to the law rather than to him.

Trump doesn’t reverse policy because he’s undecided. He does so because he can only think like a businessman and not a president.

Steven Conn, a history professor at Miami University, is a regular contributor.

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