Not My President: The Rise of the Working Class and Decline of the Heroic CEO

In late November, Bob Iger returned to the post of chief executive officer of Disney. He had retired in 2020 after 15 years as the media megacorporation’s CEO,  where he was hailed for the company’s acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm. In the year before his retirement, Iger’s annual salary was $65.6 million, and he had an estimated net worth of $690 million.

But after the Disney board ousted his hand-picked successor last month, Iger – now 71 — was suddenly back in the job. At a Disney town hall meeting a few days later, CNBC reported that “Iger joked his wife, Willow Bay, told him he should run Disney again so that he wouldn’t run for U.S. president — something Iger has thought about in the past.” In a 2022 interview, Iger explained why he had considered a presidential run:  

I had this notion that every kid in America should grow up believing that they could be me, meaning that they could follow their dreams and achieve them, that they could start off with nothing and become something . . . and that America would provide them with opportunity, whether they were Black or white, rich or poor, suburban, urban, rural, you name it. That’s what I would have wanted for America.

Reports didn’t say how Iger’s joke was received at the Disney meeting, but the funniest thing about his story is Iger’s own overestimation of his political appeal. It’s very likely that working-class America doesn’t want him — or any other CEOs — as presidential candidates.

In the past 30 years, emerging from rising neoliberal pro-business, anti-government, and anti-worker ideologies, CEOs experienced soaring compensation and developed an equally soaring estimation of their value to society. For such big egos, a step up to the White House seemed possible, despite their complete lack of experience in public service.

Years before Iger considered plans for a presidential run, Texas businessman Ross Perot was the first of the generation to do it. As the Associated Press reported in 1992, “Perot said neither Bush nor Clinton had the boardroom experience to run the country like a business.” While he didn’t specify what that might mean, Perot ran the most successful third-party candidacies in modern times in 1992 and 1996. But he still lost. Nevertheless, since that time, many other business millionaires – both Republicans and Democrats – have campaigned on the same undefined notion. Steve Forbes tried it (1996 and 2000), and he was followed more recently by Herman Cain (2012), Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson (2016), and Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer, and Andrew Yang (2020). Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz considered an independent candidacy in 2020.

Of course, I’m leaving out Donald Trump, the one business executive who ran for the presidency and actually won (2016), then lost (2020), and now is the first declared candidate for 2024.

Yet when People magazine profiled the 26 leading contenders for the White House in 2024, it didn’t include a single corporate leader. What happened?

The short answer is Trump, who has finally shown us what it means to run the government just like his business—which, incidentally, was convicted of all 17 charges of tax fraud and related felonies on Dec. 6. The Manhattan DA concluded that Trump’s business was a criminal enterprise: “We got to see the inner workings of the Trump organization: the greed, the lies, the cheating.”

The longer answer is heightened working-class consciousness. As other Working-Class Perspectives contributors have noted, we are in a momentous time for the U.S. labor movement. Public support for unions is higher than it has been in almost 50 years, labor strikes are at a 30-year peak, and workers are organizing new workplaces and industries. All this despite legal constraints and well-funded corporate anti-union campaigns.

This worker reappraisal and uprising has shaken people to their senses about corporate leaders.

The long-standing media myth depicts the “heroic CEO and entrepreneur,” savvy self-made  men (and less often women) who work smarter and harder than the rest of us.

But that myth has faded in recent years. But we have witnessed Howard Schultz, Jeff Bezos, and other CEOs spending millions of dollars to ensure that their low-paid workers will remain that way and keep them from organizing unions. We now know the utter emptiness of Starbucks’ corporate mission “to inspire and nurture the human spirit,” and that Amazon is definitely not “Earth’s best employer, and Earth’s safest place to work.”

Many people are sick of their bosses. A 2022 Pew Research Survey indicated that “low pay, a lack of opportunities for advancement and feeling disrespected” were the three top reasons people quit their jobs in 2021.

Those sound like the concerns raised by many Disney employees. Disney’s Iger has been praised by the corporate class (the New York Times fawned over him as “Hollywood’s nicest C.E.O.”),  but he doesn’t come off so well in a survey of workers. A 2018 study by the Occidental College Urban & Environmental Policy Institute and the Economic Roundtable Report titled “Working for the Mouse: A Survey of Disneyland Resort Employees” found that “more than 85% of union workers at Disneyland earn less than $15 an hour.” That may explain why so many indicated that they were struggling with homelessness and food insecurity. Workers also complained of “ever-shifting work schedules, extra-long commutes, and low wages.” One single mother who worked at the park full-time said “financially, I’ve seen several people lose homes, live in their cars, fail relationships and the list goes on, due to the lack of monies earned at the greatest place on Earth.”

A 2022 study by the Harvard Institute for the Study of Business in Global Society (BiGS) and the Edelman Trust Institute confirms a general lack of faith in business and CEOs. The survey suggests that people in the U.S. and 13 other countries believe that companies are failing nearly everyone – employees, customers, future generations, and their communities – except owners and shareholders. They would like business to play a greater role in the reduction of problems like wage inequality, climate change, prejudice, racism, and job loss due to automation.

The gloss has worn off the CEO. People would like businesses to do better, but they don’t trust that they will – and that is especially true for low and middle-income workers, who recognize how they are harmed by corporate practices. It’s no wonder people don’t want their country run like a business.

Christopher R. Martin, University of Northern Iowa

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