Is Starbucks’ Barista in Chief Brewing a Presidential Run?

Is Starbucks’ Barista in Chief Brewing a Presidential Run?

Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz speaks during the company's annual shareholders meeting March 18, 2015, in Seattle, Washington.

SourceStephen Brashear/Getty

Why you should care

America’s next businessman-turned-presidential contender would be a very different breed of capitalist than Donald Trump. 

Harboring presidential aspirations in America is a lot like having a bad rash: You can cover it up for a while and even openly dissemble in the face of the awkward queries about it. But you can only hide it for so long. And even if the uncommitted candidate remains more coy than a baptist in a brothel, there’s a certain rhythm to the preparations and planning, even to the artful nondenial denials. There’s a certain itch that will not be denied a good scratching.

Which is one reason why as soon as Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz announced on Monday that he was stepping down from the company, the move ignited speculation about his future political intentions, including a presidential bid in 2020. Regarding his plans, Schultz told The New York Times that he intends to “think about a range of options, and that could include public service” (and a Starbucks representative confirms that is still his current plan).

The better question might not be whether Schultz is going to run for president, but for how long?

Putting aside that “range of options” translates to “yes” in any American political dictionary, the barista in chief’s actions speak louder than his noncommittal words about whether he is brewing a presidential run. Consider what Schultz, 64, has already done:

  1. Penned op-eds and speeches with lofty rhetoric about putting “power before principle and cynicism before civility”? Check.
  2. Written a book about your special brand of public service? Done, and working on a new one.
  3. Taken a road trip to understand real Americans? Check. Schultz just wrote and produced a Starbucks online video series featuring 11 stories of “courage and humanity” (including some from swing states like Florida and Ohio).
  4. Stepped down from your current job to weigh “your options” mid-election cycle? You can now check that one too.

In fact, the better question might not be whether Schultz is going to run for president, but for how long?

“He’s the poster child Democratic candidate,” David Novak, the former CEO of Yum! Brands, recently told CNBC. And it’s true, the Schultz presidential stump speech practically writes itself. The son of a truck driver, Schultz grew up in public housing in Brooklyn and was the first one in his family to graduate from college (Northern Michigan University on a football scholarship) before taking an entry-level job at Xerox.

The outspoken corporate titan has not been shy about using his biography to hawk his own version of the American dream, including at shareholder meetings. In fact, Schultz has used his tenure at the top of Starbucks to wade into social and political issues ranging from immigration to gay rights to gun control to the national debt. After President Donald Trump issued his ban on immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries last year, Schultz announced that Starbucks would hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years.

Schultz has also become something of a poster child for corporate social responsibility. Starbucks offers stock ownership and free college tuition programs for workers and, according to Timothy Hubbard, a management professor at the University of Notre Dame, Schultz’s efforts on worker pay have been extremely influential in the business community. “Starbucks — through Schultz’s leadership — has shown that firms can be profitable when they pay fair wages.”

Indeed, Schultz’s political views, business record and rampant do-goodism position him beautifully as the corporatist anti-Trump candidate. Who better to do battle with the current president than a fiscally conservative, socially liberal business leader who preaches multilateralism, inclusivity and corporate responsibility? And there is the fact that — unlike the current CEO in chief’s shaky, debt-fueled business ventures — Schultz actually transformed a small Seattle coffee chain into one of the most successful companies on the planet. Trump ran on the image of a successful billionaire. Schultz actually is one.

But will that translate into a viable candidacy? “The Democratic base might not be open to a CEO candidate,” says Daniel Urman, a law and policy expert at Northeastern University, and “Schultz might not have the patience to spend several months in Iowa and New Hampshire” burnishing his appeal. In the past, Schultz has also seemed content to float above the partisan politics of the nation’s capital. “The dysfunction and polarization in Washington has not been skewed to one party versus the other,” he told OZY in a 2016 interview. Schultz may imagine a more civil, nonpartisan America, but should he enter a party primary — especially one as crowded as the Democrats’ 2020 edition — the high-minded capitalist is going to have to take off the gloves and fight for attention like everyone else. And today’s Democratic Party does not appear terribly keen on centrist white men.

Still, says Urman, Schultz already has something that most candidates crave: name recognition and national visibility. And a crowded field could benefit a political outsider like Schultz if, like Trump, he can rise with only a plurality of delegates in the early primaries. Nonetheless, an early flameout like Steve Forbes or Herman Cain is a more likely outcome for business leaders running for president than a Trump or Ross Perot distance run. “It’s easy to assume that running a country is analogous to running a company,” says Hubbard, but in reality, “just like it takes years to prepare to run a business, it takes just as long to prepare for political office.”

Schultz certainly looks like he’s starting to scratch that presidential itch. Whether it ends with him being dunked in the balm of electoral defeat is another story. On the bright side, if he were to make it to the general election, points out Urman, Schultz has lived and attended college in Michigan. Meaning that, unlike the Democrats’ most recent contender, “he probably won’t forget to visit!”

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