President Zuckerberg

Image; Alessio Jacona, Flickr
Richard N. Block

The “will he, won’t he?” story that will not go away

Facebook founder and tech-industry deity Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that he intends to have visited each of the 50 United States by the end of 2017. He has about thirty states to go, he wrote, having already visited and spent time in the other twenty (-ish).

He plans to meet residents, in order to listen to their stories and expectations for the future, because Facebook “is about connecting the world and giving everyone a voice [and] I want to personally hear more of those voices this year.”

He decided on this plan because globalization “has created many benefits, but for a lot of people it has also made life more challenging,” he wrote. “This has contributed to a greater sense of division than I have felt in my lifetime. We need to find a way to change the game so it works for everyone.”

But in a month when another billionaire is going to assume the highest political office in the world’s richest, most powerful country, Zuckerberg’s declaration has been widely interpreted as having a different, unstated motive: to lay the groundwork for political office.

Zuckerberg is now the fifth-richest person in the world, per Bloomberg, while Trump does not even crack the top 200. In fact, Zuckerberg’s net worth is likely something around fifteen times Trump’s. Bradley Tusk, a tech-industry regulatory adviser and former Michael Bloomberg campaign manager, told CNN that there are really only a few political jobs that could conceivably interest Zuckerberg:

“He has so much power and influence, both through his platform and his wealth, that there are really only a handful of jobs that could conceivably even be worth his time.

The short list of tempting political offices, according to Tusk, would include Senate majority leader, speaker of the House and, of course, president of the United States.

Precedents are being set

Again, though: this week, Donald Trump will be inaugurated, despite never having held political or military office. That means that if Zuckerberg did choose to run for President one day, it wouldn’t be unthinkable — it wouldn’t even be unprecedented. And considering Zuckerberg’s Facebook success, and his and his wife, Priscilla Chan’s, ambitions for his philanthropic foundation — including the eradication of all disease by the year 2100 — we know he isn’t afraid to dream big.

And he’s surrounding himself with people who know how to make big dreams pay off. Zuckerberg announced on Jan. 10 that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has hired David Plouffe to lead on policy matters. Plouffe is best known as the campaign manager behind Barack Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign.

Furthermore, he and Chan have already pledged to give 99 percent of their Facebook stock within their lifetimes. “Right now, there are amazing scientists, educators and doctors around the world doing incredible work,” he wrote. “We want to help them make a bigger difference today, not 30 or 40 years down the road.” Ordinarily, this might be taken as a clue that Zuckerberg was planning to eventually relinquish control of the company, perhaps as preparation to take public office.

All best are on

But the devil is in the details. In the spring of 2016, Vanity Fair writes: “Facebook announced a new stock structure that essentially allowed C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg to retain control of his company, even if he were to sell most of his stock.” Furthermore, that filing allows Zuckerberg to retain his role as an officer even if he takes a government job. (Read the SEC filing here.)

The new stock structure was the subject of a lawsuit as of December. It has widely been reported that the public-office provision is limited to two years; however, TechCrunch points out that as long as he maintains a certain level of stock ownership or the board approves it, Zuckerberg could retain indefinite control while working in government.

“Some would surely view a role in government as a selfish push for power despite Zuckerberg’s massive philanthropy initiatives,” writes TechCrunch. “Certain government offices might have historically required him to give up control of Facebook, but Donald Trump is currently redefining how much ownership of business one can have as President.”

Either way, Zuckerberg has some time to mull it over. As of now, he isn’t even eligible for the presidency yet: the Constitution states you have to be 35. As of publication, he was 32. He’ll be 36 in 2020, and the youngest person to become president so far was Theodore Roosevelt, who was 42 when he took office following the assassination in 1901 of William McKinley.

The stars might just be lining up for President Zuckerberg.

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