And no, not for free lattes
We've entered an age in which anyone can be a viable contender for president of the United States—even without any record public service or military history. All one needs is the appearance of business acumen, name recognition, and a solid line of products that everyone's tried once or twice. Donald Trump seems to have coasted to victory with this kind of resume, so it's no longer impossible to think that any popular CEO has the inside track for 2020 and beyond. And that's why Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz should run for president, now that he's relinquishing the helm of the world's biggest coffee chain. In a political culture where job creation and business experience (either real or imagined) mean more than dedicated public service, the time is right for a left-leaning businessman to throw his coffee lid in the ring.
Howard Schultz's presidential run would make sense for a few reasons. Schultz joined Starbucks as the company's marketing director in 1982, and became CEO of the company in 2008 after an eight-year hiatus to work on his own vision for a sit-down coffee shop—a project that helped transform Starbucks into the cultural hub that can be found throughout towns and cities across most of the world. Schultz was outspoken on political issues throughout his tenure at Starbucks: After police brutality protests erupted in Ferguson, MO, Schultz held an impromptu conference with Seattle-area employees to talk about America's racial divisions. Schultz told gun owners that they were not welcome to bring their firearms into Starbucks, even at locations within open-carry states. And during the 2016 presidential election, Schultz called for post-election civility from his staff, characterizing this year's political contest as "epic" and "unseemly." Schultz has donated to several politicians in the past, both Democrat and Republican, and the Starbucks CEO endorsed Hillary Clinton during this year's race.
Although Schultz denies his interest in politics could lead to a run for public office, it's not hard to envision see how his new role in the company—heading Starbucks' "social impact" initiatives—could prime him for a second career in politics. Plus, Schultz is a prolific writer who published For Love of Country, a book that celebrates the value and sacrifice of veterans, in addition to two other works about his experience at Starbucks. In fact, Schultz has been an outspoken supporter of pro-veteran initiatives, and dedicated a portion of his family foundation to the assistance of returning soldiers.
But Schultz isn't just focused on helping veterans, either. The Schultz Family Foundation also focuses on providing jobs and career education for young adults, due in no small part to Schultz's own experience growing up in public housing on the outskirts of Brooklyn, NY. Part of a family who Schultz described as "working poor," the Starbucks CEO never envisioned that he would become a leader of the business community, let alone a successful white-collar worker. His upbringing has impacted the way that Schultz ran Starbucks as well, making economic inequality a cornerstone of his corporate social responsibility platform.
If you put all the pieces together, Schultz is primed to run for president. The traditional barriers to entry—a lack of political or military experience, decades of public service, or even a passing knowledge about public policy—have all been bulldozed by the Trump phenomenon. For the first time in contemporary American history, we've witnessed a person become president simply because of their public persona and experience in the business world (either real or imagined). And if we're willing to have Trump be the first businessman to rise to power based solely on his ability to make money, the bar for other CEOs to get elected is so low that it's scraping the ground.
Better still, Schultz is a household name that could cross the liberal-conservative divide. He's a self-made billionaire who hasn't forgotten his working-class roots, and has pulled himself up by his bootstraps without insisting that his employees do the same. Schultz is a proponent of subsidized healthcare for employees, and provides tuition assistance for Starbucks employees. Plus, there are few other companies that are just as popular in red states as they are in blue—positioning Schultz to enjoy name recognition and approval in states that aren't usually friendly to Democratic nominees.
Lastly, Schultz is no stranger to international business. The coffee chain caters to local sensibilities, selling Teavana in India and China, peanut butter paninis in Indonesia, and flat whites in the United Kingdom. Schultz described Starbucks' international strategy as one that is “[...] highly respectful of the culture and traditions of the countries in which we do business. We recognize that our success is not an entitlement, and we must continue to earn the trust and respect of customers every day.” This business model is not equivalent to foreign policy experience, but it beats the pants off of Trump meeting with international business leaders and disrupting decades of diplomatic norms before taking the oath of office. And after the next four years are over, we might be satisfied having a president who actually cares about other cultures, let alone one that has worked with them on political issues.
It's hard to say whether or not Schultz will run for president, and that his transition within Starbucks is a primer for such a decision. But it's much easier to see that the Democratic party is at a loss for fresh talent following the 2016 election. Would-be candidates stepped aside to let Clinton run, which has created a talent gap that might prove challenging for the party in 2020. Plus, a galvanizing figure like Schultz could speak to both wings of the Democratic party: the pro-business wing that typified the '90s-era party of Bill Clinton and the pro-equality, pro-working class contingent led by Elizabeth Warren today. Few candidates could appeal to both in a genuine way, even if the country seems to be clamoring for someone who can. The love of coffee might be the last thing that brings Americans together. Maybe it's time for a coffee executive to do the same.