Republicans and Democrats alike are crucifying Carly Fiorina for saying her own candidate, John McCain, is unqualified to run a technology business.It’s odd to hear a spokesman for the Obama campaign, which only last week defended community organizing as good preparation for political office, suggest that a much different ability is now a prerequisite.
It’s odder still to hear Republicans accept that premise, arguing that McCain or Palin are up to the job. No one who has ever run a large technology business thinks that McCain or Obama, much less Palin or Biden, is qualified to run a large technology business.
At the very least, it requires an interest in technology, or business. Which is just another way of saying that setting government economic policies isn’t the same as getting a printer to ship on time. Only in countries like North Korea are we outraged if someone implies that the Dear Leader can’t beat Michael Jordan at basketball, or perform brain surgery.
Yet why are politicians so eager to be seen as CEOs? As former CEO Dick Cheney would tell you, the qualities that many people admire in a CEO – the single-minded pursuit of an objective, with a long-discarded regard for whether people like you or not — can create problems in political office. Undeterred, Sarah Palin now describes herself as the CEO of Alaska. And George Bush’s governing style has often admiringly been compared to that of a CEO.
The image these would-be CEOs seek to project is one we are now eager to admire. Whereas Americans once rooted for Teddy Roosevelt in his battles against tycoons, it seems like the public respects the imperial power and instinct for plunder of executives rather than politicians’ mealy-mouthed idealism and legislative give-and-take. The pied piper of the preceding generation was John Kennedy; today it is probably Steve Jobs.
But the charter of the President is so much larger and more humane than running a lemonade stand, even one of HP’s size. When Michael Dukakis said “it’s about competence” we all immediately recognized he was wrong: yes, someone like the CEO of HP has to be competent, but the presidency has a moral dimension that is, well, inspiring.
The best thing about Obama is that he chose not to be a CEO, instead devoting his time to helping poor people get a better life. The best thing about John McCain is that he served his country in a war. Sure, maybe if they’d spent their youth climbing the greasy pole at HP, they’d be ready to run HP. But I’m glad they didn’t.