Business Acumen Doesn’t Guarantee White House Success

Mitt Romney, who presents his business background as his chief credential to be president, doesn't cite any models  for a good reason: There aren't any.

With almost no exceptions, successful U.S. presidents have come from politics or the military. None of those generally considered great or near great by historians had primarily a business background.

"Other characteristics than business acumen seem to be more associated with what people expect of a president," says David Rothkopf, who runs an international business advisory company and just published a book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning That Lies Ahead." President Barack Obama's campaign is appealing to this attitude by reminding voters of Romney's career as a private-equity executive.

The Big Three on practically every list of great presidents are Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR had no business background; Lincoln failed in his venture as a store owner. Washington, who belonged to the landed gentry, had a mixed record with his agriculture business at Mount Vernon.

The most successful business executive to reach the White House probably was Herbert Hoover, a wealthy mining executive. He was president when the Great Depression hit, and usually is rated one of the weakest chief executives.

More recently, Jimmy Carter and both Presidents Bush had business backgrounds on a smaller scale than Hoover. None is generally considered among the better leaders.

Conversely, Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman are given good grades by many historians. Reagan was an actor; Truman, after a failed business career, including bankrupting his haberdashery, was a politician for decades before ascending to the White House.

(Albert R. Hunt is Washington editor at Bloomberg News and a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)

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