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From Chief Executive To The Oval Office: Would It Work?


American voters have long been intrigued by the idea of an outsider chief executive as commander-in-chief. Think Ross Perot, Mitt Romney, and now Donald Trump and former Hewlett-Packard head, Carly Fiorina. But is being in the Oval Office anything like being in the corner office? We ask NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith to explore.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: There's this image of the CEO - powerful, visionary, bold.


STEVE JOBS: And we are calling it iPhone.

KEITH: OK - we all just imagine Steve Jobs.


JOBS: Today Apple is going to reinvent the phone.

KEITH: This is the idea of the CEO president - someone who can think big, balance the books and take no prisoners. William Howell says it's a nice fantasy.

WILLIAM HOWELL: But their ability to act upon whatever vision they hold is very different.

KEITH: Howell is a professor at the University of Chicago and an expert on the American presidency. He says there are some similarities between CEO and president. They're both the top dogs, they're both called upon to see the whole and lead, but that's where the analogy falls apart.

HOWELL: Presidents have power. They've got lots of power. But the idea that that makes them akin to a CEO misses just how hard this job really is.

KEITH: Take the most basic of powers - hiring and firing, something Donald Trump turned into a trademark on his show, "The Apprentice."


DONALD TRUMP: You're fired.

Bradford, you're fired.

You're all fired.

All four are fired.

KEITH: Keith Reinhard is CEO emeritus of DDB Worldwide, an advertising agency.

KEITH REINHARD: If you find out that one of your people is doing something wrong, that's easy. They're gone.

KEITH: It's not so easy for presidents. Remember Jeffrey Neely, the man behind the government workers gone wild conference in Vegas a few years back? The General Services Administration he organized violated just about every rule there is about travel on the government dime. As the scandal flared, he was called before Congress.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mr. Neely are you currently employed by the GSA as a federal employee?

JEFFREY NEELY: Mr. Chairman, on the advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer based upon my...

KEITH: Neely ultimately served time prison for fraud against the government, but he was allowed to retire with full pension benefits. He was not fired. Two other employees involved in the scandal were fired, but they appealed and won. So yeah, it's a lot harder than...


TRUMP: You're fired.

KEITH: There's another area where CEOs and presidents differ, and it's a big one - actually getting things done. Here's Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina.


CARLY FIORINA: Yeah, this is a big damn deal but we can pull this off.

KEITH: In 2001, she was CEO of Hewlett-Packard and announced a $25 billion merger with Compaq computers.


FIORINA: This is, in our judgment, a game changing move. This combination changes the game, and we are playing to win.

KEITH: Fiorina was CEO. She had a vision, she executed it. The merger was controversial at the time and people are still debating whether it was good for HP. But, through force of will, Fiorina was able to do exactly what she wanted. (SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE FLOOR)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This is bigger parliamentary inquiry.

KEITH: Presidents, not so much.

Even in the rare case when Congress is controlled by the president's own party, the legislative branch by design has a mind of its own. Ben Baldanza is the CEO of Spirit Airlines. You may know Spirit as the airline that offers absolutely no frills at all and charges for everything.

BEN BALDANZA: We said we're just going to focus on offering the lowest fare to customers, and that required that we change a whole bunch of things - change the way we market our product to our consumers, change the way we configured our airplanes, changed the way we fly our airplanes.

KEITH: Baldanza was able to do it because he's in the private sector, where leaders can make change happen.

BALDANZA: The analogy might be a complete entire reworking of the tax code and the Social Security system and all transfer programs and the military, and do it all in two years.

KEITH: As CEO, he can charge passengers $55 for a carry-on bag. But Baldanza says there's no way he'd get away with something like that if he were president.

BALDANZA: If you tried to make a change like that in the federal government, I think you'd be run out of town on rails.

KEITH: Baldanza has no interest in becoming president - because he likes to make things happen. And there's one other difference, says Reinhard from DDB Worldwide.

REINHARD: I've only been in the Oval Office one time. I noticed it has four doors (laughter), which I thought was interesting. Most corner offices don't have four doors.

KEITH: Four doors and a plane - Air Force One - that puts any CEO's private jet to shame, even Donald Trump's. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.

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