The Atlantic

Presidents Aren't CEOs

On the meaning and implications of the country’s first true businessman president
Source: DenisNata / Shutterstock / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Among the more arid and promiscuous expressions in the English language is saying that someone is “in business.” The pawnbroker, the accounts executive at CBS, and the risk arbitrageur are all nominally engaged “in business,” but that fact probably does more to obscure the differences in their daily affairs than to reveal any fundamental similarities.

Donald J. Trump has certainly been “in business” for the better part of 50 years. And while his electoral success has made him a global face for American capitalism, the fact that he’s the first businessman to vault from the C-Suite straight to the presidency says little about what the country might expect from the next four years—or at least not nearly as much as many tend to think.

Most presidents have had some experience in private enterprises before entering the Oval Office, a few of them quite substantial. Herbert Hoover made millions as a mining consultant; Jimmy Carter managed a successful peanut farm; and George W. Bush ran an oil company. No president, however, has ever spent his entire adult life immersed in the hustle and bustle of business or, to use Trump’s preferred nomenclature, deal-making. That activity—global in scope, arcane in detail—has received special scrutiny in light of the president-elect’s refusal to release his tax returns, and not without reason. Conflicts of interests come in many forms, but few are as worrisome as the leader of the free world keeping one eye on his portfolio whenever he contemplates some policy decision.

Such concerns have always dogged presidential contenders who campaign on their business acumen, and the reason why so many Americans are willing to overlook the opportunities for cronyism and self-dealing is an abiding

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