President-elect Donald Trump is one of a kind: billionaire, entrepreneur, deal-maker, populist, Twitter aficionado and more. A look at leaders, both foreign and domestic, with some of his qualities may be instructive about business success and political accomplishment.
Two recent billionaires who led countries come to mind: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Chilean President Sebastian Pinera.
Mr. Berlusconi, his country’s longest serving prime minister, was elected three times for a total of nine years between 1994 and 2011. His wealth is in real estate and popular entertainment. He exploited voters’ rage at a discredited, gridlocked political establishment and cast himself as the only viable savior of his struggling nation. Given his two divorces, fondness for beautiful women, frequent gaffes and insults of adversaries, railing against immigrants and minimal expertise on foreign policy, mainstream liberal politicians treated him as a joke. Parallels with Mr. Trump are often cited.
Mr. Berlusconi’s populist appeal was underestimated. He sold a dream and became the center of conversation. He promised to amend Italy’s constitution, deregulate markets and shrink government. Italians were entertained by the comedy he brought to politics and were willing to forgive — repeatedly — his failure to deliver on economic promises. He celebrated the flouting of rules, including not paying taxes.
Ultimately, leaders of the European Union forced him to resign in exchange for rescuing Italy’s tanking economy during Italy’s devastating debt crisis.
In Chile, Sebastian Pinera, who owned LAN airways, came to power in 2010 with the promise of private sector growth and prosperity. Less than two weeks before he took office, a magnitude 8.8 earthquake struck the heart of Chile. Six months later, 33 Chilean miners were trapped in a mine collapse, and after their rescue, Mr. Pinera’s popularity surged.
But within a year student protests broke out demanding reform in the underfunded, class-based public education system. Cabinet changes failed to quell the unrest, and in the next year labor groups began protesting the country’s economic inequality despite continued economic growth. This fueled further unrest and dissatisfaction with Mr. Pinera’s government. The Economist magazine described him in 2012 as being considered an “inept politician” by both the opposition and supporters. He was barred from seeking consecutive terms, and a leftist government succeeded him in 2014.
Two billionaire leaders with different outcomes, neither positive.
In the United States, Mr. Trump will be our first billionaire president. He has appointed five billionaires and half a dozen multimillionaires to serve in his administration. What is the track record here at home?
History suggests there is little correlation between success in business and success in the White House. Of the seven presidents since 1900 with business backgrounds, only Harry Truman — who was a failed businessman — is rated above average.
Well-respected surveys of presidential scholars, including by the American Political Science Association, rate six of the seven (Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush) 22nd or lower among 43 presidents. Three were voted out of office after just one term: Hoover, Carter and George H.W. Bush.
President Trump may not fare as unfavorably as these, but this does suggest business success is not enough. Among variables in the surveys putting presidents at the top are capacity to empathize, ability to persuade with eloquence and willingness to compromise.