Disney CEO Robert Iger arrives at the Save the Children...

Disney CEO Robert Iger arrives at the Save the Children "Centennial Celebration: Once in a Lifetime" event on Oct. 2, 2019, at The Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif.  Credit: Invision/AP/Jordan Strauss

At a Walt Disney Co. employee town hall [last] week, Bob Iger went through his to-do list as he returns to the CEO job after almost three years away: Reprioritize the company's creative engine, get the streaming business making money, manage the company's costs. All relatively standard business fare — and the types of challenges the Disney board brought him back to tackle after it ousted Iger's hand-picked successor, Bob Chapek.

But in his Q&A with employees, Iger glossed over the most urgent, complex, and potentially hazardous task in front of him: tussling with the Republican Party in its war against "woke" corporations.

This is not a minor side issue. Just ask Chapek, whose downfall was in part precipitated by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' decision to make an example out of Disney for mildly pushing back on a bill banning the discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in public elementary schools. Chapek first angered a faction of employees and industry groups when he failed to speak out against what critics have dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill. And when he eventually did make a statement, he angered DeSantis, who retaliated by dissolving Disney's special districting in the state.

Chapek's master class on how not to handle a hot-button political issue clearly undermined the Disney board's confidence in him. And Iger seemed to underscore his successor's failings by tweeting his opposition to the bill and then telling CNN in a not-so-subtle jab at Chapek: "I just think you have to do what is right and not worry about the potential backlash to it."

In today's climate, that's easier said than done. When Iger was CEO the first time around, employees and customers were already starting to demand corporations take a stand on the types of issues once deemed outside the business world's purview. And Iger did. In 2017, for example, he joined the chorus of CEOs criticizing [President Donald] Trump's travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries, and calling for action from lawmakers after a Las Vegas mass shooting. But that was the beforetimes. Iger may have been contending with an increasingly vocal workforce, but he didn't have to navigate a Republican Party that's made punishing what it deems left-leaning corporations a major part of its platform.

This isn't going away for Iger or for Disney. DeSantis, who is clearly eying a presidential run, has decided that framing himself in opposition to "woke" corporations is good for his brand. In Florida, he's made Disney his prime foil. But this isn't going away for corporate America, either. As Republicans take control of the House, the rest of the party is following suit (exhibit A: its brewing drama with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce after it backed some Democratic candidates in the midterms). As Disney just learned, having a CEO who can maneuver through this new political terrain is going to be just as important as having one who can maneuver through the uncertain economic climate.

At the town hall on Monday, Iger fell back on a line that he seems to use whenever he's likely to irk conservatives: It's not political, he'll say. As much as he may mean it, that's a 2019 view of the world. Today, everything is political. And you can be certain DeSantis and his cohort won't let Disney forget that.

This guest essay reflects the views of Bloomberg Opinion columnist Beth Kowitt. She wrote it for Bloomberg Opinion.

This guest essay reflects the views of Bloomberg Opinion columnist Beth Kowitt. She wrote it for Bloomberg Opinion.


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