Companies & Industries

A New Political Agenda for Business?


This election, business leaders should offer Washington a set of plans that will restore the country's economic strength and global standing

The likely nominations of Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama all but ensure major changes in Washington in the next four years. With the 2008 Presidential election intensifying, business leaders need to engage more vigorously in the national debate. It is time to be proactive in shaping the debate, not just in lobbying for our self-interests.

The consequences of the 2000 and 2004 elections suggest business leaders should be careful what we wish for. All too often, seemingly obvious choices have long-term outcomes that have not been adequately considered:

In 2000 we wished for tax cuts—and got large deficits and widening income disparities.

We wished for less regulation—and got the subprime crisis and mammoth losses on Wall Street that forced firms to raise capital from sovereign wealth funds.

We wished for a weaker U.S. dollar so we could export more—and got rapidly escalating oil and corn prices as foreign governments preferred holding commodities over dollars.

We supported invading Iraq—and found our country trapped in a war we don't know how to end and a price tag of $2 trillion-$3 trillion.

We wished to keep our free-enterprise health-care system and wound up with out-of-control health-care costs that make our companies less competitive—and still we have 45 million uninsured citizens.

We abandoned the Kyoto Treaty instead of renegotiating it—and lost vital time as climate change became a growing global issue.

As a result, trust in the President and the Congress, as well as in business leaders, has fallen to the lowest levels of our lifetime, according to Gallup poll numbers. That should be a source of grave concern.

From Both Sides, an Authentic Leader

In every election, candidates promise a great many things to many constituencies in order to get elected. The danger in this election is that politicians may respond in imprudent ways to voters' deep and obvious dissatisfaction, devising hasty solutions that result in unintended consequences. This has happened frequently before, such as the $1 million limit on taxable compensation, Section 404 of Sarbanes-Oxley, and the defeat of free-trade bills.

The good news is that both parties are poised to nominate authentic leaders for President. These two candidates seem prepared to engage in an intense debate about what's best for the U.S. for the next decade, instead of focusing on minor issues, false charges, and gimmicks.

The next President needs to face the realities of our current situation and level with the American people by describing the problems as they really are. Then we need Presidential leadership to engage all of us in concerted actions to get the U.S. back on track. Business leaders should participate vigorously in this debate, going beyond our self-interests to focus on what is best for the country. We cannot sustain business success unless the U.S. is strong and our economy is healthy.

A Long List of Priorities

Business leaders should offer the new Administration and Congress a thoughtful platform of policies and programs that will restore America's economic strength and our standing in the global community. This requires us to address the broader issues that will ensure competitive companies, healthy markets, and equitable rules of engagement.

Specifically, we should advocate for:

A fiscally responsible federal budget that strengthens our long-term competitive position in the world economy.

Free-trade agreements that enable U.S. companies to compete around the world while ensuring our employees have secure futures.

A focus on innovative products and services to strengthen exports and provide domestic jobs.

An education and training system that enables all citizens to have productive jobs providing livable incomes.

An energy policy that reduces consumption, improves efficiency, and increases the proportion of supply from North America while creating breakthroughs in renewable resources.

An efficient and competitive health-care system that covers all citizens.

A foreign policy in which the U.S. collaborates with other countries to restore world peace and strengthens our military without repeated military incursions.

A tall order? It is indeed. This agenda must be challenging because the problems are so great. We may not get there in the next four years but, to quote author Stephen Covey, we need to "begin with the end in mind," so that we know we are heading in the right direction and making progress in getting there.

That's the only way we can restore the confidence of the American people in business and political leaders. And it is the best way to ensure America and its business community are strong and vibrant.

Bill George, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, is the author of two best-selling books, True North and Authentic Leadership. The former chairman and chief executive of Medtronic, he serves on the boards of ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, and Novartis.

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