In the past 100 years, only four professional businessmen have won the presidency. All of them touted their business experience. Only one of them was a spectacular business success remotely comparably to Mitt Romney – and he was the greatest bust of them all.
Two of the other three business presidents found themselves totally out of their depth on issues of national macro-economic policy. And only one of the four who succeeded came from the most modest, small town, Middle America background of all – and he never got the credit he deserved.
The track record of those four gives the lie to the Republican mantra – repeated into numbed oblivion – that America needs a brilliant businessman to clean up the mess in Washington.
- Warren G., Harding, 1921-23, was a successful small newspaper publisher in Columbus, Ohio.
- Herbert Hoover, 1929-33, who rose from being a penniless orphan to become a respected, self-made multi-millionaire (today he would certainly have been a billionaire) and one of the leading consultant mining engineers on the planet.
- Jimmy Carter, 1977-81, who was a Georgia peanut farmer.
- And George W. Bush, 2001-09, whose elitist family background gave him an assured entry into the oil business and into owning the Texas Rangers baseball team.
Carter’s peanut business was successful, but it never truly took off – nor did he care. His lifelong passion was politics and he proved to be a competent governor of Georgia who scraped into the White House against a politically extremely weak incumbent – Gerald Ford. Carter’s economic record in the White House was woeful. The stagflation of the late 1970s made even the current unending recession (calling it a “weak recovery” is a perversion of language and meaning that George Orwell would have appreciated) look tolerable.
Bush 43 was extremely similar to Carter in masking his passion for politics, campaigning and power behind a façade of a successful, contented businessman. If anything, his record in running the Rangers was far worse than Carter’s passable but lackluster business record. And none of Bush’s forays into the oil business amounted to much.
No wonder therefore, that the younger Bush was out of his depth as president: He ran up colossal, ever-growing and eventually record budget deficits every year. He created a short term illusion of prosperity by keeping interest rates artificially clamped down. He ran up ever-growing trade deficits with China. And he refused to impose or enforce any responsible oversight mechanism over Wall Street that might have averted the September 2008 financial meltdown.
Hoover came to power in 1929 as the Golden Boy who had achieved an extraordinary career in business and engineering. Unlike George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, he did not come from any background of privilege at all.
He was orphaned at age nine and grew up dirt poor and impoverished. He was the ultimate American “self-made man” who triumphed over all adversity – until he became president.
No one has ever come from a more impoverished background to the White House than Hoover – not even Abe Lincoln. He compiled a heroic record saving the lives possibly 20 million people from starvation across Europe and Asia after World War I as an international humanitarian administrator. He was regarded as a standout success for his eight years as secretary of commerce from 1921 to 1929. He was expected to be an economic genius as president. Of all the four business presidents, he was most like Mitt Romney in his confidence that his business background and principles of minimum government would ensure prosperity and success.
Instead, Hoover quickly found that all the principles and values that had served him so well in business left him high and dry in dealing with the systematic causes of the Great Depression.
Hoover even sounded eerily like a separated-at-birth twin or identical clone of Mitt Romney. He was convinced that the government and the economy were riddled with inefficiency and waste, and that the Great Depression could be solved by slashing government spending – especially all programs to bail out small businesses. He was obsessed by the fear that any government programs to directly create jobs for the unemployed or bring direct relief to the poor would destroy the work ethic of the American people.
The one area where Hoover most parted company with Romney was on taxation. He raised it to ruinous levels. His notorious decision to backdate a tax raise in 1932 was the direct cause of the run on the banks that almost completely destroyed the financial system of the entire United States right before FDR took office in March 1933. But like Romney, Hoover was adamantly opposed to any federal government regulation of financial institutions to prevent abuses or dangerous speculative bubbles.
Worst of all, because Hoover had been so successful in his previous career he believed he had the answers to everything and despised any financial leader or expert who disagreed with him. His predecessor, President Calvin Coolidge, disliked and distrusted him. “That man has spent the last eight years giving me advice I did not ask for, all of it bad,” Coolidge said when asked to endorse Hoover in 1928.
Only one of the four business-background presidents proved a success in shaping U.S. economic policy and he had a record of business achievement vastly inferior to either Romney or Hoover. That was the widely but unfairly despised Warren G. Harding: And the reasons why he succeeded are another story.
Next: Part 3 – Harding and Truman: Small town American mediocrities who saved the economy
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Martin Sieff is an editor at Sputnik, the Russian-owned news organization. He is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East (2008), Gathering Storm (2014) and Cycles of Change: The Three Great Eras of American History and the Coming Crisis that will Lead to the Fourth (2014). Follow Martin on: @MartinSieff