On the campaign trail, Donald Trump made much of his success as a businessman. While investors have often lost money on ventures with him, there’s no doubt he had a hand in a number of sizable commercial enterprises. Trump’s supporters, likewise, make much of the president’s background in business and highlight his broad delegation of responsibility to others and austere budget proposals as a sign of a new “businesslike” approach to governing.

This leads to an obvious question: have businessmen made for good presidents? While the data set is limited, the answer seems to be “no.”

Defining what is a “businessman” is itself a tricky business. Anyone who has derived any income from self-employment or freelancing has a claim to the title. By this measure, just about everyone who has been president — a few career military men aside — was a “businessman” at some point in his life. A number of other presidents, from John Adams to Richard Nixon, participated in the business of running law practices and one, Harry Truman, spent a few years running a clothing store. But these men didn’t meet the common definition of businessman; the operator of a sizable commercial operation.

By that definition, 10 presidents qualify. Six early presidents, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, ran plantations that relied on the labor of enslaved individuals. While these operations were certainly businesses, the deeply sinister economic basis on which they operated has little relevance to modern commerce.

Putting them aside, then, it’s possible to come up with four presidents who qualify as “businessmen” in the modern sense. Warren G. Harding was a successful newspaper publisher and Herbert Hoover was the foremost mining engineer of his day. George H.W. Bush, before launching his political career, founded and ran the oil company now known as HGR Group. George W. Bush also started an oil company, which was less successful than his father’s. He then proved successful as the owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, selling the team in 1998 for $250 million, three times what he and his partners spent to buy in it 1989.

Their successes in business didn’t help them in office. None of these four men end up even in the top half of presidents in surveys of historians and none has a sterling reputation with the public.

Only Harding, who died after serving two and a half years in the White House, left office popular; the evidence of serious corruption in his administration very likely would have damaged his standing had he lived.

Hoover, who became world famous and widely admired as a result of his efforts to save Europeans from starvation during and after World War I, presided over the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. His aloof manner and sometimes hesitant response to economic crisis destroyed his once sterling reputation and made him a one-term president.

George H.W. Bush, successful in overseeing both the end of the Cold War and victory in the Gulf War, proved himself maladroit at domestic policy and also served only one term.

While George W. Bush’s presidency may be too recent to judge, almost nobody defends his decision to go to war in Iraq and little can wholly absolve him of responsibility for the serious recession that ended his eight years in office.

The skills that led these men to success in business simply didn’t help them in the White House. All of them except Harding were widely considered “out of touch” with the masses at certain points in their presidency. This may be because a successful businessperson only has to satisfy investors, employees and customers, while a president must retain support from about half of the population to be re-elected.

The jobs of government and businesses are also different. Businesses can easily stop doing things that don’t make money, for example. Governments often must continue doing those things, precisely because nobody in the private sector can make money off them. While the very largest corporations sometimes approach the internal complexity of a major government agency, a family-operated business doing real estate investments and brand licensing is just a lot simpler than the massive federal government.

There are certainly reasons to think that Donald Trump could yet prove himself a successful president. But history shows that a business background doesn’t prove that helpful in the White House.

Image by CTR Photos


Featured Publications