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Why there’s so much speculation about Starbucks chair Howard Schultz’s 2020 ambitions

If Trump ran for president and Oprah might be considering it, the Starbucks executive chair might figure he can do it too.

Outgoing Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz at the New York Times DelBook conference in 2017.
Outgoing Starbucks chair Howard Schultz at the New York Times DelBook conference in 2017.
Michael Cohen/Getty Images for the New York Times
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Starbucks executive chair Howard Schultz had expected to step down last month, but a Philadelphia racial bias incident and the subsequent fallout kept him on for an extra few weeks. But on Monday, Schultz announced he will step away from the coffee company on June 26. The move immediately ignited suspicions about potential political ambitions, including a possible 2020 bid for the White House — speculation fed by his going-away message, which sounded quite a bit like a stump speech.

“I set out to build a company that my father, a blue-collar and World War II veteran, never had a chance to work for,” Schultz said in a letter to employees announcing his departure. “Together we’ve done that, and so much more, by balancing profitability and social conscience, compassion and rigor, and love and responsibility.”

Schultz, who started working at Starbucks in 1982 and bought the company in 1987, oversaw the company’s rapid expansion to more than 28,000 stores in 77 countries around the world. But he has for quite some time been rumored to have ambitions far beyond his Starbucks cafes in the public sector, perhaps involving politics.

Last year, Schultz stepped down as CEO and was replaced by Kevin Johnson. Myron “Mike” Ullman, former chair of JC Penney, will become Starbucks’s new chair, and Schultz will get the honorary title of chair emeritus.

“I intend to think about a range of public options, and that could include public service,” Schultz said in an interview with the New York Times published on Monday. “But I’m a long way from making any decisions about the future.”

He plans to write a book and has launched a website.

If Donald Trump could do it, Howard Schultz appears to think maybe he can too. And he’s not the only executive toying with the idea.

Schultz thought about running for president in 2016 but decided against it

Schultz’s friends reportedly urged him to join the Democratic presidential primary in 2015 and make a run for the White House. Earlier that year, Schultz said in an interview with Time that he didn’t see his candidacy “as a solution” that would end well, and in the fall of 2016, he explained some more of his reasoning.

”Is it the carcinogenic issues that are so divisive in Washington or is it the lack of personal leadership? And I don’t know what the answer is, but I determined for myself that at this time I can do more as a private citizen and as the CEO of a public company to advance the causes that I think are important for our country and for the company,” he said.

He endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Since then, though, Schultz has become increasingly vocal in politics and critical of President Trump, whom he accused of “creating episodic chaos every day.” In response to Trump’s travel ban, Schultz announced that Starbucks would look to hire 10,000 refugees. He went to Houston after Hurricane Harvey, and in the wake of racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, he penned an op-ed calling on “better angels” to rise to the defense of others.

The Washington Post spoke with Schultz at a job fair in Des Moines, Iowa, in 2017 and noted that he “sure sounds like” a 2020 presidential candidate. “The whole issue is, we cannot have an America where so many people are left behind,” Schultz said.

And he certainly hasn’t shut the door on running.

When he announced plans to step down as Starbucks CEO in late 2016, he said he was at the time “all in on all things Starbucks and have no plans to run for public office” but clarified “that’s the way I feel today.”

In his Monday interview with the Times, he left an even bigger opening. “I want to be truthful with you without creating more speculative headlines,” he said. “For some time now, I have been deeply concerned about our country — the growing division at home and our standing in the world.”

If Trump did and Oprah might, Schultz could figure he can too

Trump’s election seems to have inspired more than one figure from the corporate world to consider the path from the corner office to the Oval Office.

Oprah Winfrey’s Golden Globes speech earlier this year spurred speculation that she might make a run for the White House, and she’s done a fair, if not full-throated, job of tamping that down. Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks, has openly speculated about running for president in 2020 for quite some time. This week, in an email to the New York Times, he said he was thinking about it but “not willing to discuss at this point.”

Disney CEO Bob Iger’s friends have reportedly nudged him to run, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s 2017 listening tour created buzz that he might be mulling an attempt at politics.

But among the many lessons of Trump’s presidency is that experience in corporate America does not necessarily translate to success in politics, including in the White House. Trump has struggled with the bureaucracy surrounding him and is still trying to fill key positions; his Trump Organization pales in comparison in size and scope to the US government — and, for that matter, most major corporations.

To be sure, Trump isn’t the only US president to have experience in business. George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Herbert Hoover also had significant private sector experience on their résumés, and none, arguably, performed spectacularly well.

As far as Schultz goes, it’s not clear what sort of space there would be for him in what is likely to be a crowded Democratic field in 2020.

The executive seems to prefer a centrist approach, and it’s not clear an enthusiastic Democratic base will be very amenable to it. In a March interview with Time, he complained about a “lack of responsibility” from both parties. The publication noted he seemed most animated by the topic of reducing the national debt, largely considered a fiscally conservative position, and he called for a “centrist approach” for addressing entitlement spending, spurring economic growth, and addressing climate change.

“We’re here in a sense talking about climate change, but all of this is related to the leadership that we need, the centrist approach we need, the understanding that science is real and a fiscal responsibility to once and for all address the fact that we can’t rob future generations,” he said.

The Times points out that Schultz has built what could be perceived as a political network at the helm of Starbucks, working with a public relations firm where John McCain’s former campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, is a top executive, and with the Democratic group SKDKnickerbocker. He generally donates to Democrats, but in 2011 he hosted a town hall for No Labels, a nonpartisan group.

Schultz’s departure letter to Starbucks employees could certainly be repurposed as a campaign launch. It harks back to his humble upbringing in Brooklyn and his father, a blue-collar worker and WWII veteran. He mentions his decision to buy Starbucks in 1987 and casts the story as one of business success and values at their best.

He writes:

Please remember, Starbucks is at its best when our stores and offices are welcoming places for everyone. So stay true to our reason for being: inspiring and nurturing the human spirit through a sense of community and human connection. As you adhere to our core purpose, do not forget to innovate around it. Never embrace the status quo. Instead, have the curiosity to look around corners and the courage to push for reinvention. Change is inevitable, and the world has become a more fragile place since we first opened our doors. Amid the chaos, try to listen with empathy, respond with kindness, and do your best to perform through the lens of humanity. Do not be a bystander. Instead, choose to be responsible for what you see and hear. No person or company is ever perfect, so learn from mistakes and be forgiving of yourself and others. And when goals are achieved, remember: success is always best when shared. And yet … success is not an entitlement; it must be earned every day through hard work and teamwork. If you strive to be the best version of yourself and bring out the best in others, your dreams will come true again and again, and Starbucks mission, values, and guiding principles will endure.

If you swap out “Starbucks” for “America,” it almost sounds like a stump speech.