The CEO-In-Chief

George W. Bush touted his business experience as one of the prime reasons he should be elected President. His CEO experience was packaged to elicit an image of a hard-working straight-laced leader who took responsibility for his business — in good times and bad. But in the Enron era of CEOs, it makes perfect sense we ended up with something very different in the White House.

George Bush is a CEO, alright. And that’s the problem.

Today, the most well known CEOs are the people who pose for the front of magazines when times are good, and creep out the back door with the company safe when things go south. They are often not the brave commanders of the sinking ship helping everyone to safety first — they are increasingly the people who, after navigating the ship into an iceberg, sneak out of the control room, elbow women and children to the deck, steal the only working lifeboat for themselves, and then blame everyone else for the disaster. They are the Ken Lays of Enron, the Bernie Ebberses of WorldCom, and unfortunately now the George W. Bushes of the White House.

The similarities between Bush and his business contemporaries could always be seen in his reflexive first-to-take-credit, last-to-take-responsibility ethic, common in today’s crooked crony capitalism. He was the first to take credit for passing a giant tax cut for the wealthy, but refuses to take responsibility for the fact that it provided little relief for the average American and created huge deficits. He was first to take credit for bombing the Taliban after September 11th, yet refuses to take any responsibility for the security failures that allowed September 11th to happen. He was the first to take credit for supposedly winning the war in Iraq, yet now he’s refusing to take any responsibility for the poor planning that could lose the peace.

But if faulty salesmanship on these issue is run-of-the-mill, Bush’s recent conduct on the Iraq-nuclear issue shows us the real downside of having a pass-the-buck CEO in the White House. When his claim that Iraq had nuclear weapons was debunked by almost every credible source on the planet, Bush deployed a 3-step defense that could have come right out of Ken Lay’s playbook:

Step 1: Deny That There Is Even a Problem
Enron CEO Lay told his employees the company was doing well despite knowing that it was on the verge of collapse. Similarly, Bush and his surrogates continued to make the nuclear claim as basis for war, despite knowing the International Atomic Energy Agency, the CIA, and the State Department had confirmed it was fake.

Step 2: “I Didn’t Get the Memo”
When it became impossible to hide the imminent collapse of Enron, CEO Lay claimed no responsibility because he said he didn’t read his company’s documents. Similarly, when it became clear that Bush ignored concrete evidence that his Iraq-Niger claim was false, he said he was not responsible because neither he nor national security adviser Condoleeza Rice bothered to read the intelligence documents where that was made clear. Gross negligence obviates responsibility, remember?

Step 3: Get Angry
Just as Lay fumed about not getting a fair shake in public, the White House angrily reminded us “the President is not a fact checker” when asked why he didn’t read the intelligence dossier. What are we crazy? How could we ever think that the President or the National Security Adviser would have time to read intelligence before sending us into war?  

Of course, should we have really expected anything more from Bush? All the tell-tales were just beneath the veneer of his earnest, businessman-make-good story. Sure, he accrued business experience as CEO of Harken Energy. But his experience was in running the company into the ground, being investigated by the SEC for securities fraud, and claiming no responsibility for the damage he did to stockholders — all while making sure to pocket millions on his way out the door. Sure he seemed to be an innocent political neophyte when he entered politics. But one of his closest advisers and biggest contributors as Texas governor was Ken Lay, and now his most influential confidant as President is Dick Cheney — a man who took just two years as CEO of Halliburton to guide the company into near-bankruptcy, decimate stockholder investments in an accounting scandal, and bail out with a multi-million-dollar retirement package and an ongoing one-million-dollar-a-year stipend.

In a past era with similar international security challenges, President Harry Truman famously said “the buck stops here,” taking responsibility for the actions of his government — good and bad — in order to build trust with our allies.

Today, President Bush is saying “pass the buck,” denying responsibility for his administration’s failures and thereby destroying our credibility with our allies. Harry Truman was no modern-day CEO, and unfortunately for us and the rest of the world, George Bush is no modern-day Harry Truman.