Why Americans like to see tycoons running for president

Kerry Boyd Anderson

Vivek Ramaswamy announced last week that he is running for the Republican Party’s nomination for president. Ramaswamy has no government experience; instead, he touts his business experience as a key credential. While he is very unlikely to win the nomination, his candidacy highlights the appeal to many voters of a businessperson running for president. Ramaswamy is the US-born child of Indian immigrants. He earned a fortune by founding biotech company Roivant Sciences. Last year, he started an asset management firm that is designed to compete with companies that promote environmental, social and governance analysis in investment decisions. In recent years, he has become a political commentator, appearing on Fox News and writing two books that oppose liberal “identity politics.”
Ramaswamy lacks name recognition. He is more likely seeking to boost his personal brand and position himself for other political positions than to be seriously hoping to win the 2024 nomination. However, he is not the first businessperson who has sought to use business experience as a springboard to the presidency. Both the Republican and Democratic parties have nominated people with business experience for the presidency in the past, but it is more common within the Republican Party and some third parties. Since the Second World War, the Republican Party has nominated four candidates who had substantial business experience: Donald Trump, Mitt Romney, George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush. The Democratic Party nominated two men with significant business experience: Jimmy Carter (a successful farmer and businessman) and Harry Truman (an unsuccessful businessman). It is far more common for the parties to appoint nominees whose primary career experience is in the military, law or government.
Presidential nominees with business backgrounds often offer government experience as well. Romney, George W. Bush and Carter served as state governors before running for president. George H.W. Bush added extensive diplomatic, political and government experience to his business credentials before pursuing the presidency. Truman served as a judge and a member of Congress before becoming vice president and then president.
Except for Trump and Romney, all of these men had also served in the military. Trump is the only major party nominee, at least since 1945, to jump from business to the White House without first gaining any political or government experience. Many Republicans and some independent voters saw his lack of government experience as an advantage. He was not part of “the swamp,” the disparaging term that many conservative commentators use to refer to Washington. He was an “outsider” who promised to do things differently, which was a huge part of his appeal in 2016.
There are other reasons why a business-minded candidate for president appeals to many Americans. The idea of the American dream remains strong for many voters, who often assume that most wealthy businesspeople earned their wealth because they were smart and hard-working. Many Americans – especially Republicans – share an aversion to government and bureaucracy. “The private sector could do it better than government” is a common sentiment among Republicans. In 2016, many Republicans and independents expressed hope that a businessman like Trump might manage government better than the “politicians.”
The tendency to assume that businesses function better than government is deeply ingrained in the American psyche, but it is declining. While many Republicans remain staunchly pro-business, others are increasingly willing to challenge large corporations. For example, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recent steps to impose more government control over Disney runs directly counter to the common Republican belief that businesses could run things better than government. However, many Republicans praise DeSantis for punishing Disney for the company’s “woke” positions, including its criticism of a Florida law to limit teaching about sexual and gender identity.
Polling shows that Americans still have high levels of respect for self-made businesspeople, small business owners and entrepreneurs, but far less for large corporations and their executives. However, entrepreneurs often struggle, even in business, to transition from startup culture to managing a large, established company. For similar reasons, they might struggle to manage the institution of the federal government. Furthermore, many businesspeople are not entirely self-made. For example, Trump benefited greatly from an inheritance and his wealthy father’s connections and financing, but this did not hurt his reputation with voters who liked his business experience.
Few men have jumped from business to the White House, so the historical record offers few examples to assess whether businesspeople are likely to make successful presidents. However, history suggests that they are not. Several of the most successful businessmen to have become president are often ranked among the least effective presidents in history, including Warren G. Harding, Herbert Hoover and Carter. Since the Civil War, the presidents who make the top rankings in two different surveys – Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower – had little business experience, except for Truman, who was unsuccessful in business but is frequently ranked among the best presidents.
Wealthy businesspeople such as Ramaswamy have some advantages in running for president. They can appeal to Americans’ pro-business sentiments. They can use their own wealth to fund their campaigns, as Ross Perot did in an independent campaign in 1992. Furthermore, running for president requires a lot of self-confidence – maybe arrogance – and many leading businesspeople have that in spades. However, they must also run against a history that suggests that they will find it difficult to gain a nomination or to run the government.