This week, Apple CEO Tim Cook pulled a Mark Zuckerberg, meaning he seemingly just ended up in a swing state, winning hearts and minds, and generally charming locals. He completed the move by then insisting that he is not running for president. He is simply doing things that presidential hopefuls do, you see.
We are living in a time when anyone can be president, it seems, and so anyone may as well cast their hat into the ring. Tech CEOs, given their penchant for pushing their platforms toward world domination, are especially inclined to flirt with this possibility. So far, Zuck and Cook have tiptoed (but not actually, right?) into this arena, and so maybe it’s time we ask: What tech CEO would make the best—and the worst—president?*
(*Because this is a thought experiment, reality’s rules do not apply—i.e., candidates don’t have to be born in the U.S. or be at least 35 years old, etc.)
Best: Jeff Bezos
In general, I feel a certain level of discomfort supporting the idea that those who are successful in business can automatically transfer their expertise to government. The current president is living proof of the potentially catastrophic consequences of drawing such a false equivalence. But Trump’s victory has nevertheless opened the floodgates for other industry leaders to think “Hey, me, too,” and Zuckerberg is off eating chocolate malts in Iowa, so I suppose these thought experiments are fair game.
Assuming we can push all the typical requirements of baby-kissing and fried Twinkie–eating aside, I think Jeff Bezos would run the country well. The 53-year-old Amazon founder and CEO has one of the most important traits required of a president in the era of Twitter—patience. When he founded his company at age 30, he began tapping away at the loosest Jenga block in the retail market: books. As Amazon grew, he reinvested its earnings into more and more ventures. It took years before the company was finally profitable, and all the while Bezos ignored the complaints of investors who argued it had yet to show any payoff. Bezos’s ability to plan long term would most definitely bolster his ability to make significant change in Washington. For one, he would resist the distraction of the 24-hour news cycle, and for another, he would understand the political compromises required to reach his long-term goals. Not to mention, he’d do his best to bring efficiency and customer usability to government programs, the same way he did to services like Amazon Prime. It's worth noting, of course, that Bezos owns The Washington Post, and surely there would be a conflict of interest here. That said, he would probably stay far away from Twitter.
Worst: Travis Kalanick
Uber has had a disastrous year, one that has been compared to the Trump administration for its misogyny, arrogance, and general disrespect for established norms. Kalanick is not only guilty of allowing those things to happen in his company, he has perpetuated them on a personal level as well. He may have successfully expanded Uber’s reach in its eight-year existence, but he did it by compromising the health, safety, and well-being of his employees, ruthlessly screwing over competitors, and flouting government regulations. At best, a President Kalanick would be rendered useless by the slow, inefficient churn of Washington’s politics and international relationships; at worst, he’d allow the benefits, security, and rights of the average American employee to be eaten away, little by little, in the name of capitalism.
Best: Bill Gates
It was hard for me to pick a tech CEO who would be the best president, because I think most big business executives are particularly ill-suited to the task. Not only does their incredible wealth hobble their ability to relate to or understand the lives of average Americans, but the goals of a chief executive of a company are opposite those of the chief executive of the United States. The president's goal should be universal prosperity for residents. In contrast, a CEO must strive to maximize profitability for the corporation, which by necessity requires enriching an in-group at the expense of an out-group. An efficient CEO is a titan of inequality, hoarding as much wealth as possible.This project does not require moral leadership or an eye toward justice, and often demands a comfort with making the world (and country) less economically equal. Most tech CEOs have participated in legal but unethical business practices, like dodging taxes through loopholes, that help the company but hurt the country.
That said, of all the tech CEOs, Bill Gates seems like he wouldn't start any wars, and like he would at least attempt to prioritize helping the sick and the economically disadvantaged for the sake of helping them, and not as an attempt to extend the power and wealth of the corporation he founded.
Worst: Peter Thiel
Peter Thiel was born in Germany, thank heavens, so he can't actually become president (even if this thought experiment would allow it). Trump's Silicon Valley surrogate believes that democracy is incompatible with freedom. He is skeptical of climate change, encourages students to drop out of college, and has blamed women obtaining the right to vote and welfare on the end of democracy.
Best: Sundar Pichai
Electing pretty much any tech company founder as president is a horrible idea because they’re all used to ruling by fiat and have over time become convinced of their own incomparable genius. Better to pick a guy who started from the bottom. Sundar Pichai started at Google in 2004 in middle management—today he’s the chief executive of the world’s most important internet company. He rose thanks to a mix of deft political maneuvering (Google cofounder Larry Page loves him), legitimately great ideas (he made Chrome), and a genuine ability to work well with others. He’d bring a dash of both rationality and empathy to the Oval Office, traits sorely lacking in 2017. Pichai’s rather stiff keynotes at Google’s annual developer’s conference indicate that he may not have the charisma to win an election in an era when politics pinballs between resembling reality television and the WWE. But nobody expected an immigrant from India to take over Google, either.
Worst: Elon Musk
Sure, Elon Musk would revitalize our public infrastructure, transition us away from fossil fuels, and formally establish the United States of Space. But he’s also rational to a fault and has a dangerous level of confidence in his own ideas. Musk’s overactive brain is basically the rogue AI that somehow ends up destroying humanity in order to save it. Bet that this guy, if given the nuclear codes and a list of no-win options for handling a belligerent North Korea, would get us all annihilated on some “end justifies the means” bullshit.
Best: Susan Wojcicki
That’s right—a woman! I’ll couch this in the standard “all-tech-CEOs-would probably-be-bad-presidents-because-megalomania-and-hubris” disclaimer, and move right along to argue that Susan Wojcicki would be my pick for tech CEO–turned leader of the free world. The YouTube CEO appears to be doing what she can to turn the platform into a democracy of sorts (albeit with plenty of inherent issues, but hey, what democracy doesn’t suffer from those?) and she was instrumental in implementing AdSense, which is one of the heaviest hands in controlling what the internet looks like today. She’s also been a vocal advocate for lengthening maternity and paternity leave and for equal pay, and I personally love that she’s one of those home-by-6 people. And because constituents like to see themselves in their politicians (which [shudder] is a bad indication of people right now), I can’t say that I mind that her political affiliations and upbringing line up with mine—I’m also the oldest of three crazy-smart Polish women! (I mean, not CEO of tech companies and PhD anthropologist smart—I see you, Janet—but still smart!)
Worst: Andrew Torba
I was going to nominate Jack Dorsey for this, because Twitter is often awful and his double-CEO standing (he’s also CEO at Square) makes him seem unable to commit to one position of power at a time. But then I thought, well, Gab is worse-Twitter, and so I suppose Gab’s CEO would technically be a worse choice. Also, he is this guy.
Best: Devin Wenig
Who better understands the true nature of the American people, from our secret obsessions to our messed-up behaviors with money, than the president and CEO of eBay? Described in Fortune as a CEO unique for his “lack of arrogance and willingness to roll up his sleeves, and engage in the details,” Wenig, who grew up surfing off Long Island (a slightly more man-of-the-people pursuit than John Kerry windsurfing in Nantucket), took over and revitalized his late father’s pharmaceutical company when he was in his early 20s, and worked as a lawyer and a Reuters executive before joining eBay. Wenig is well-positioned to navigate the looming retail-industry crisis in America, and he’s demonstrated that he’s willing to hear out the problems of the little guy, while still knowing how to properly delegate.