This article was last modified on June 25, 2007.

A Decline In Business Presidents?

If I were to say to you that there is a strong connection between government and business, you wouldn’t find this the least bit profound or controversial. Many links can be made: businessmen become politicians, politicians get appointed to the boards of big companies. Corporations donate large sums to political campaigns, politicians hand out large contracts and subsidies to certain businesses. This is all common knowledge in today’s world of American politics, and I won’t examine the issue further.

The question is this: are the people running our country coming more from a business background or less from one than they were forty years ago? While influence from the business world may or may not be declining, are the businessmen themselves populating our political offices more or less?

In 1966, economist Robert Heilbroner made the prediction, “I expect to see fewer big businessmen in positions of power in Washington and more educators, career administrators, scientists, or soldiers.” (see note 1) [Heilbroner: 54] His prediction at the time was optimistic, and perhaps idealistic, being grounded in his anti-capitalist and pro-socialist views. But today we don’t need to be optimistic or speculative at all: we can simply look at the past and try to make a reasonable judgment about the trends we see.

Past Presidents

In order to best compare the current situation to the past, we must have a solid understanding of the presidents Heilbroner had available for study. For the sake of simplicity, we will ignore the presidents prior to 1900, before the strong influence of capitalism and large corporations. We will divide the presidents elected 1900-1964 into the categories Heilbroner provides us: businessmen, educators, administrators, scientists and soldiers.

  • Businessmen (4): Harding (1921-1923, newspapers), Coolidge (1923-1929, also lawyer), Hoover (1929-1933), Truman (1945-1953)
  • Educators (2): Wilson (1913-1921, also a lawyer), L. Johnson (1963-1969)
  • Administrators (0): none
  • Scientists (0): none
  • Soldiers (3): T. Roosevelt (1901-1909), Eisenhower (1953-1961), Kennedy (1961-1963)
  • Other (3): McKinley (1900-1901, lawyer), Taft (1909-1913, lawyer), F. Roosevelt (1933-1945, lawyer)

What conclusions can be drawn from this? We can see Heilbroner is right to point out the connection between business and politics. From 1921 until 1933 (and again from 1945 through 1953), we had businessmen running our country. And while the observation might be subjective, I think it could be said these were not the best years for the American people. Under the businessmen, we saw the Great Depression, an economic drawback of some consequence.

Even from 1945 through 1953 under Truman, there is something to be said about the effects on the economy and the worker. Truman is largely responsible for the buildup of what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex, including the funneling of tax dollars through defense contractors to boost the economy. While this does create jobs, it creates them only in a very limited sector and produces profits for only certain key people.

We might further recall how Truman handled the steel strikes. Truman neither sided with the strikers or even with the mill owners — he attempted to nationalize the steel industry, forcing all employees to work for the government (which needed the steel for the war effort in Korea). The Supreme Court denied him the right to do so, but workers’ rights were just about the last thing Truman was concerned about.

Workers most likely benefited the most under Franklin Roosevelt (a lawyer) with the implementation of the New Deal. If we are to accept the idea that a country’s strength is in the strength of the average citizen, businessmen were not the people working in our country’s best interests.

Presidents 1968-2004

  • Businessmen (2): Bush I (1989-1993, oil), Bush II (2001-2009, oil)
  • Educators (0): none
  • Administrators (0): none
  • Scientists (0): none
  • Soldiers (0): none (although Bush I did serve in World War II)
  • Other (5): Nixon (1969-1974, lawyer), Ford (1974-1977, lawyer), Carter (1977-1981, farmer), Reagan (1981-1989, actor), Clinton (1993-2001, lawyer)

And what conclusions can be drawn from this second batch? First of all, we should note that Heilbroner’s prediction was not overly accurate. We have seen a decrease in soldiers and educators as president, and the idea of a scientist as Commander-in-Chief still seems far off in the future (although their presence as advisers seems plausible).

The number of lawyers as president seems to have increased (more on this shortly) and the businessmen have reared their heads again as both Bushes are prominent businessmen in the oil business. For all the faults of Nixon and Reagan (“voodoo economics”?), the average citizen did not really feel the crunch until Bush returned the power to the businessmen. Both Bushes seem to have business driving their policy rather than policy driving business, as both men have a preoccupation with Iraq and the oil-rich Middle East (an area all other presidents have been more moderate and diplomatic with for the most part).

The burden does not fall entirely on George Bush or his son, of course. Clinton is culpable for his push of NAFTA and similar agreements which gave more power to American businesses and reduced transparency and accountability. One key power of the government is to regulate the businesses of the country, and Clinton was negligent in that respect. Corporations are larger than ever, outsource more than ever, and are even more powerful than the government in some respects through campaign contributions, lobbying and other dubious ways to influence those who control policy.

Has business become so powerful that even without businessmen in power the businesses still control the decisions in Washington?


A number of observations can be drawn from this overview of presidents, business and the occupations of those in power. First, while businessmen and presidents often coincide, Heilbroner neglected to mention the biggest group presidents are drawn from — the legal community. There is no great leap from those who must debate the law to those who help legislate. A more natural transition could hardly be found.

The connection between businessmen in power and the average working class employee cannot be understated. When a businessman president equates the “national interest” with “business interests” (as is so often the case), the goals become quite clear: generate revenue through cheap labor and high profits. But this is an illusion; if the money is taken away from the average worker and invested in foreign lands (where cheap labor is plentiful), the foundation of our country becomes unstable. Even businesses have to realize they have no consumers left when the potential customers cannot afford to buy the products.

And as mentioned above with regards to Clinton, business has become so powerful (with what are termed “multinational” or “transnational” corporations) that even the politicians with good intentions become beholden to their whims. As the 2008 elections approach, pay attention to the contributions for the candidates — even those without any perceived pro-business bias. Can they keep their integrity and not sell out to their donors?

Business — particularly big business — has long had a connection with government that has helped aid it to become the monolith it is today. Heilbroner observed that in Congress the Small Business Committee sees again and again “that the large companies get the overwhelming bulk of defense contracts”. [Heilbroner: 46] Do the names Boeing or Halliburton come to mind? Of course, this creates a cycle — big companies get the contracts, become bigger, are able to perform more efficiently through cheap outsourced labor, get the next contract, etc. Smaller companies and average Americans are left paying for wars that aid neither the country or the American people.

A turn from businessmen is not only warranted but a necessity if we are to see any return to a comfortable lifestyle for America’s lower and middle classes. But even more than that, an aggressive pro-American policy that challenges the power of businesses. While I am not advocating socialism (my detractors would accuse me of this), I am advocating responsibility — make companies responsible for their choices, responsible for their employees and loyal to their countries rather than their pocketbooks. American corporations promoting the American worker and helping them to secure a better life is not just good business, it’s a moral imperative.


1. Heilbroner also suggests a decrease in businessmen at universities, a decrease in the promotion of foreign investment, and the increase of viewpoints supporting Neo-Keynesianism. While these are all fine topics in and of themselves, they will not be addressed here.


Heilbroner, Robert L. The Limits of American Capitalism. Harper & Row, 1966.

Also try another article under Political
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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