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Is Starbucks' Howard Schultz Running for President in 2020?

By Daniel B. Kline - Updated Dec 5, 2016 at 2:21PM

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In the past, Schultz has said he would not run because of his commitment to the company, but he has now stepped down as CEO, and the internet is buzzing with speculation.

In the early days of the 2016 election, when Donald Trump was just a notion, and people were warming up to having a corporate CEO as president, there was considerable speculation that Starbucks (SBUX -0.66%) CEO Howard Schultz might enter the race.

It wasn't a crazy idea given that Schultz has always been outspoken politically, and he has not hesitated to throw his company into controversial areas. That has not always been the easiest choice for the brand, as efforts at promoting discussions of race and even offering inclusive, rather than Christmas-specific, red holiday cups have resulted in negative feedback for the company.

Before the 2016 election, Schultz aggressively shut down the many people who thought he was a good fit for a Democratic party that had Hillary Clinton, the early rumblings of Bernie Sanders, the unlikely candidacy of Joe Biden, and little else. The CEO made it clear in an op-ed in The New York Times that he was not "done serving at Starbucks." He bowed out of any potential candidacy by saying:

Although we have built an iconic brand while providing even part-time employees with access to healthcare, free college education and stock options, there is more we can do as a public company to demonstrate responsible leadership.

That sounded like both a reason to not run against Clinton, who he supported, but a bit of a stump speech for a future run. Now, Schultz has stepped down as Starbucks CEO, though remains involved in growing the company, and while he still denies that he intends to run in 2020, he may be at least considering it.

Howard Schultz (left) and incoming CEO Kevin Johnson Image source: Starbucks.

What is Schultz doing?

The man who led Starbucks from a small company that only sold coffee beans, to a global phenomenon has said he is stepping down in order to lead his company's efforts to create a bigger brand based on its Roastery location in Seattle. That entrepreneurial effort to once again change how Americans consume coffee may well be appealing to Schultz, but it's also possible it's not something he views as a long-term task. 

"For me, perhaps there are other things that are part of my destiny," the departing CEO told an all-hands meeting of Starbucks employees where he announced he was stepping down, The New York Times reported yesterday.

And, while he is leaving the CEO job, Schultz, as chairman of the company, still plans to oversee its efforts on "social impact initiatives." That's a powerful bully pulpit for the left-leaning CEO to still take clear stands in opposition to the assumed actions of incoming president Donald Trump.

Schultz did tell The Times that "I'm all in on all things Starbucks and have no plans to run for public office," but he clearly left the door open to change his mind. "That's the way I feel today," he said.

What happens next for Schultz?

By denying his interest in running in 2020, Schultz can protect the Starbucks brand, which has already faced some backlash for its CEO's leftist leanings. But, by stepping down and handing over the top job to COO Kevin Johnson, Schultz has begun to create some needed separation from the brand he created were he to consider making a bid for the presidency.

After Clinton's loss, there is no clear standard-bearer of the Democratic Party. Schultz, a business success, would be a logical contender in 2020. He has the CEO experience of the president-elect while also showing that it's possible to make money -- a lot of money -- while still doing right by your employees.

There would be no benefit for Schultz in declaring his candidacy now and it would hurt the Starbucks brand. In two years, however, when the 2020 field takes shape and Johnson has been well established as Starbucks' CEO, running for president may very well make sense for a business leader who has a strong history of putting workers' success on equal or even higher footing than corporate profits.

Stepping down as CEO is not Schultz getting into the 2020 race, but it is him clearing the decks in case he decides to. Whether he chooses to do that likely depends on what Trump does during the first half of his term, and whether that creates public demand for a different kind of CEO to try to take over as commander in chief.

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