Philip Levine: Politicization of Disney Gives Bob Iger Path to White House

Is there any worldwide organization more complex and difficult to run than the U.S. government? Maybe the Walt Disney Company.

Like the federal government, Disney is an economic, cultural, and educational powerhouse – one that represents American society to the world. It’s no wonder, then, that Disney finds itself embroiled in controversy over its criticism of Florida’s new law, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” measure by opponents and a “Parents Rights” measure by proponents, which earlier this month resulted in Gov. Ron DeSantis leading the Republican charge to strip Disney of its special tax status.

If it seems strange for an incumbent governor seeking reelection to go to war with his state’s largest economic generator, consider this: If DeSantis wins in November, his ambitions for national office will quickly become apparent. Attacking Disney was a Trumpian act to rile up the GOP’s conservative national base.

But this cuts both ways. The Florida-Disney feud elevates Disney’s status in time for the 2024 presidential election. We’ll see if it helps DeSantis in the Republican primary season, but let’s look on the other side of the aisle for a moment. It also provides a political opportunity for Bob Iger, the celebrated former leader of the Disney empire, to take his own plunge into national politics on the Democratic side.

Iger has apparently been considering such a move for some time. As early as 2016, he expressed interest in running for president, only to rule it out late last year. “I think I was a little bit too idealistic,” Iger told Variety when he retired from Disney in December. “I think I was just really naive and maybe a bit presumptuous about my abilities, but more than that just presumptuous about my chances. And I’m just over it.”

Iger is being modest. He has several qualities that Democrats desperately need in a national standard-bearer.

First, he is a well-recognized and widely respected business leader. Once considered a longshot to succeed Michael Eisner, Iger went on to a 15-year tenure as CEO. Under his leadership, Disney’s market cap increased more than five-fold, in part through acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and 21st Century Fox. With Disney+ and Hulu, Iger showed a willingness to embrace the future instead of fighting it. Iger also made Disney truly global by opening Hong Kong Disneyland and Shanghai Disney Resort. It’s not surprising that in 2019 he was named Time Magazine’s Businessperson of the Year.

Business smarts of this sort are in high demand politically. As new Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin has shown, business bona fides sell well with moderate voters in swing states –particularly when economic concerns are paramount, as they are today. Youngkin’s business accomplishments, though notable, pale in comparison to Iger’s.

Iger also has a record as a bridge-building leader. He kept Disney’s diverse base of customers, employees, and shareholders happy – all of them. As we see today, that isn’t easy. He did so, as he explains in his recent book, by leading with vision, collaboration, and empathy, qualities our government could use more of. If you’ve ever been on the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disney, you’ve seen the inclusive and positive mission of the company – a mission that Iger truly embodied.

Iger has the media smarts of Donald Trump and the progressive mindset of Barack Obama – and he thinks bigger than both. As he writes in “The Ride of a Lifetime,” “Don’t be in the business of playing it safe. Be in the business of creating possibilities for greatness.”

Now he should take his own advice by reconsidering his disavowal of a presidential run. If he made the leap, he’d find support from many, including the media titan often credited with catalyzing Obama’s rise to stardom in the runup to 2008.

“If Bob Iger had decided to run for president, I would be canvassing in Iowa right now,” Oprah Winfrey told Iger while interviewing him. “I would be going door to door.”

He would have my support, too. As someone who once swore off a run for office and later changed my mind, I understand that events change. Iger should allow himself to change his heart based on whether a need arises that he feels uniquely capable of filling. A hint that a reversal is possible is embedded in his retirement interview with Variety from last December. “Nothing at this point is left on my agenda,” he told the magazine. “Businesswise.”

He then went on to recount a recent trip to New York, where he met up with his 96-year-old former boss and longtime mentor, Tom Murphy. “One of the things he taught me was take chances with people,” Iger said. “Don’t overemphasize experience – overemphasize talent.”

America should bet on talent and experience, and Bob Iger has both. He should be taken seriously as a contender for national office by any who value either. Couldn’t the U.S. – and Democrats – benefit from some Disney magic?

Philip Levine is the former two-term Democratic mayor of Miami Beach and one-time candidate for Florida governor. This piece originally ran at RealClearPolitics.

 

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