6 CEOs Thinking About Running for President

Zach Brooke
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Key Takeaways

What? President Donald Trump is the first president in modern times to emerge solely from the business world.

So what? His success has emboldened many others in business to contemplate a run for office.

Now what? Keep an eye on how brand leaders skirt politics in a time of deep division and engagement that forces companies to take political positions. 

Nov. 7, 2017

Several C-suite marketers and brand evangelists are eying runs for office after President Trump’s triumph

It’s been a year since President Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States. 

While it’s far too premature to discuss his legacy, one aspect can be asserted authoritatively: As one of the country’s most prominent businessmen (and an incredible marketer) prior to his ascent to the White House, Trump has rewritten the rulebook on the expected work experience of the president.

His success has emboldened other icons of business to ponder their own paths to elected office, up to and including commander-in-chief. Marketing News presents a rundown of business leaders publicly contemplating delving into the public arena.

1. Mark Cuban

Billionaire investor Mark Cuban is perhaps the closest executive to launching a campaign, having openly acknowledged that he is entertaining a run for president

 

The Dallas Mavericks owner and "Shark Tank" star occupies a space similar Trump. Both were prominent businessmen-turned-reality-show-entertainers known for decades by the public. And Cuban, like Trump, appears to harbor political ambitions. Cuban revealed in a 2016 "Meet the Press" interview that he would be open to becoming a running mate with either Trump or then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. More recently, he told The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd in October that the odds of him mounting a run are currently at 10%.

Former Trump advisor Steve Bannon is reported to have named Cuban as Trump’s No. 1 electoral threat in 2020, and Cuban has a history of leveling criticism against President Trump. During a 2016 campaign rally for Hillary Clinton, he said, "Leadership is not yelling and screaming and intimidating. You know what we call a person like that in Pittsburgh? A jagoff. Is there any bigger jagoff in the world than Donald Trump?" That rhetoric has not subsided since Trump’s inauguration. In July, he told crowds at OZY Fest, “If he lasts four years, I'll be there to kick his ass.” We’ll see if he follows through. 

2. Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg says he’s not running for president, but judging by his actions, many suspect otherwise. In January, the Facebook founder announced that his 2017 personal challenge would be to travel to all 50 states and meet regular Americans. Since then he’s crisscrossed the country hanging out with regular folk in the course of their day-to-day lives. North Dakotans showed him fracking, while Wisconsinites taught him farming. In the key swing state of Ohio, he asked his staff to locate Democrats that voted for Trump in the 2016 Presidential election and ate dinner with a family there in Newton Falls.

The sojourns have inspired him to speak out on societal issues. After touring Montana’s Glacier National Park, he discussed the physical effects of climate change. A visit to Blackfoot Indian Reservation in the same state led him to draft a long Facebook post connecting tribal councils, business development and meth addiction afflicting the local population. Accompanying him everywhere is professional photographer Charles Ommanney, a veteran of both the Bush and Obama presidential campaigns. 

 
 
 

He and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have also hired prominent Democratic pollster Joel Benenson as a consultant to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, an LLC that claims to “advance human potential and promote equality in such areas as health, education, scientific research and energy.” Benenson joins a cadre of political operatives already working at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe serves as the organization’s president of policy and advocacy. Former communications advisor to Sen. Tim, Kaine Amy Dudley, is its chief spokesperson. And former George W. Bush campaign manager and RNC chairman Ken Mehlman sits on the board.

Zuckerberg’s other company, Facebook, has personal data on at least 68% of Americans adults, more than half the country uses the social network every day, and 45% of all U.S. adults consume news from their Facebook feeds. Add to all that the fact that Zuckerberg has a personal net worth north of $70 billion, and you have the formula for a potentially formidable candidate, even if he’ll just squeak past the age requirement for the office come election time.

3. Bob Iger, CEO, Disney

Could Disney’s CEO be angling to trade the Magic Kingdom for Washington, D.C.’s swamp? It looks like he’s thinking about it. Iger has been asked several times this year about any political ambitions he might be harboring, and he’s deflected every time. 

 

A discussion at Vanity’s Fair New Establishment Summit at the beginning of October lead to a round of applause from the audience when asked if they’d like to see an Iger run, to which he responded. “That sounds tepid — so maybe that's a sign. And my wife is out there somewhere, and I can guarantee that she's not cheering … I will figure it out when I have to figure it out."

The will-he-or-won’t-he dance first began before last year’s election concluded, when Iger told The Hollywood Reporter "A lot of people — a lot — have urged me to seek political office." That year, he changed his political affiliation from Democrat to Independent, although he also fundraised for Hillary Clinton that August. He’s also reportedly consulted business titan-turned-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg about the transition to high office.

When he’s not busy doling out non-answers to questions about a forthcoming candidacy, Iger is sounding less like an executive and more like a politician by weighing in on issues such as gun violence and NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. One X-factor in the whole saga: Iger’s contract with Disney is up next year. He’s said he’s open to staying on. Whether that happens likely has a big impact on any future run for office.

4. Howard Schultz, Former CEO of Starbucks

Schultz is one executive who can muse about a bid for office without attending to trifles like running an $80 billion company. Schultz’s longtime relationship with the coffee seller he’s synonymous with ended in April after a 35-year history, which included a stint as CMO.

He’s long been active in left-leaning politics. In the past, he’s steered the company toward official positions on race relations, refugees, the minimum wage, guns, partisanship and marriage equality. Speculation about him mounting a campaign in 2016 grew so intense that he formally declined to run in a New York Times op-ed. All bets are off for 2020 though.

He’s taken to op-ed pages again this year after leaving his post at Starbucks to decry the violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, writing, “Not enough of our elected officials are using their voice with due force and eloquence to elevate the ideal of equality.” If that reads like an opaque critique of the president, it’s because it likely is. Shortly before leaving Starbucks, Schultz took direct aim at Trump in a speech before employees that leaked to Business Insider. “The world is screwed up. People are unsettled. … We have a president that is creating episodic chaos every single day, and that is no doubt affecting consumer behavior,” he said.

That posturing is not backed up with any political threats, however. Schultz has recently denied he plans to seek office in an interview with Reuters about his content series in October, "Upstanders" (featuring “ordinary people doing extraordinary things to create positive change in their communities”) being picked up by Amazon. Maybe 2020 speculation about Schultz ultimately concludes the same way 2016 did, with a refusal to enter the ring.

5. Tom Steyer, Founder, Farallon Capital

Tom Steyer is a hedge fund billionaire and Democratic megadonor that’s long invested in environmental causes. His current political goal is a tad different. He has spent $10 million on an ad that calls on Congress to impeach President Trump. 

The president does not seem to think much of the effort:

The political organization Steyer oversees rebranded this year to NextGen American (from NextGen Climate) to highlight its focus on a platform of issues in addition to the environment. Would the new look organization feature Steyer as a candidate though? Informed speculation says he’s testing the waters for a run for California governor next year. Asked point blank by the Atlantic whether he’s considering a run for California governor or POTUS, Steyer said, “I will do whatever I think is the most impactful thing that I can do to push what I believe in terms of values and vision.”

Whatever his decision, he’ll purportedly share it soon. A key aide told The Hill, “It's no secret that Tom Steyer is considering running for office, and he'll make a decision later this year."

6. Oprah Winfrey

An outside-the-box pick to be sure, but let’s get a few things straight:

  • Oprah’s business bonafides are not in doubt. As chairwoman and CEO of both Harpo Productions and the Oprah Winfrey Network, she oversees a media empire that reached tens of millions of viewers at its height. Through her endeavors, she’s built a net worth north of $3 billion.

  • Oprah has flirted with politics for a decade. Her endorsement of Barack Obama prior to the 2008 election is estimated to have added 1 million votes to his totals. Before that, Donald Trump mused back in 1999 about naming her his vice president when he was discussing running under the Reform Party banner. He echoed that sentiment again last year, saying he, “would love to have Oprah” as his running mate. Winfrey herself finally appears to be warming to the possibility of holding office. In early 2017 interview with Bloomberg TV saw she publicly acknowledged the possibility before shooting it down. “I never considered the question even a possibility. … I thought, ‘Oh, gee, I don’t have the experience, I don’t know enough.’ And now I’m thinking, ‘Oh.’” 

 

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Author Bio:

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Zach Brooke
Zach Brooke is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at zbrooke@ama.org or on Twitter at @Zach_Brooke.
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