The President’s Leadership Challenge: A Call for Bold Action

The President

Mr. President, there has never been any doubt you are a brilliant orator. And it is also clear that nothing you have said will cause the Republicans in the Senate to break their stranglehold on progress, using threats of filibusters to destroy the majority rule that is the hallmark of every other democracy in the world. People are asking for results they can understand.

Your First Year

You accurately articulated your accomplishments in your State of the Union address, but what’s striking is that in light of them, the American public has lost faith. If you had achieved only the economic turnaround that prevented the recession from turning into a calamity greater than the Great Depression, that alone would have put you in the history books and should have been enough for people to understand what an extraordinary job you have been doing.

You didn’t mention your accomplishments in revitalizing federal agencies, but the American people need to understand them. Much of the progress during your first year has come through the actions of federal agencies, not Congress. As the Sierra Club has said, your “administration has done more on clean energy and climate change than any other in history.” For the first time ever, the federal government is working to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from large industrial sources and vehicle tailpipes. It’s cracking down on water pollution and mountaintop mining. It’s done a turnaround from the Bush era on food safety and public health, with steps to address threats from medical devices, food supplements, and additives in food packaging and plastic bottles.

The Department of Interior has rolled back Bush-era rules that opened old-growth forests to clear-cutting, canceled Bush-era leases to drill for oil and gas in wilderness areas and off the California coast, and created vast new wilderness areas. It also plans to increase the royalties that oil and gas companies must pay to drill on public lands.

The Securities and Exchange Commission is beginning to do its job and has stepped up enforcement and issued new rules to rein in Wall Street abuses and protect investors, including rules to strengthen the regulatory regime governing money market funds, and to improve public companies’ corporate disclosures regarding risk, compensation and corporate governance. It needs to do much more, especially in the regulation of derivative.

The administration has ordered all cabinet-level departments to post a wealth of information on the Internet, in what open government groups applaud as a “sea change” in the federal government’s attitude to the public’s right to information and the creation of transparency at unprecedented levels.

The Public’s Reaction

Despite your historic accomplishments, something you’re doing isn’t working and hasn’t worked since July. It started with the agenda being seized at the town hall meetings and accelerated with the media-fanned “teabagger” movement. It is escalating with the Republican minority’s campaign of obstruction that converts the opportunity you give them to shape bills into an opportunity to block every one of them.

As we watched this phenomenon develop over the last six months, we became increasingly concerned about your ability to lead. If you continue your leadership style of the last six months, your promises in the State of the Union address will turn out to be as shallow as your commitment to health care reform will be if you are not willing to do what is necessary to make it happen. Take one step at a time if necessary, with a series of reconciliation measures like the prior administration used to enact a wide-ranging social agenda capped by a massive reduction in personal taxes – without a 60-vote majority.

It is not enough to point out that Democrats have one of the largest majorities in decades. It is not enough to reflect that Republicans have been obstructionists. You are the president of the United States. At the end of the day, you will be judged by what you achieved and by what the people understand you to have achieved.
No matter how great your accomplishments, if people do not understand them, you have a political problem from which you will not recover. If you lack accomplishments because you let the political obfuscation of a minority party block you, you will fail the American people and will succeed in being a one-term President – and you may even preside over the unraveling of the American republic, because as you noted, you need Congress to act forcefully to blunt the impact of the Supreme Court’s radical decision to let corporations spend unlimited amounts of money to control the outcome of elections.

We note four things about your State of the Union address, two with approval, one with concern, and one with disapproval.

Nuclear Power

First, the point of disapproval: Mr. President, you haven’t done your homework on nuclear power. You do not realize that there is not one safe form of nuclear power on the planet today that anyone has demonstrated on any test site, let alone commercialized.

Nuclear energy is inherently carcinogenic because of the off-gassing of Strontium-90 during the routine operations of all nuclear power plants. It is inherently dangerous because it exponentially magnifies the danger of nuclear proliferation and the likelihood that nuclear materials will fall into the hands of terrorists. It is insanely dangerous because nuclear plants are inviting targets for terrorist strikes with devastating consequences. As you know, Mohamed Atta, the lead pilot in the World Trade Center attacks, considered the Indian Point nuclear plant near New York City as the alternative target.

Nuclear power is absurdly expensive for a country trying to recover from skyrocketing deficits. No country in the world has solved the problem of how to safely store radioactive waste for millennia. This country has ample safer, cheaper, cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels. If you have any doubt about the accuracy of these comments, we will gladly provide your advisers with documentation on all these points. Your plans to support nuclear energy are a serious and profound mistake.

Offshore Drilling

Second, we are very concerned about your apparent willingness to consider offshore drilling, particularly drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The decision to allow such drilling, although politically popular, would have an insignificant impact on our energy security and would carry truly enormous costs in terms of environmental destruction. We trust that your statement that you will “take a closer look” at this issue means that you’ll take that closer look and then reject drilling as unjustifiable because it would be too environmentally dangerous with too little consequential benefit. As every thoughtful observer recognizes, the amount of oil which will be obtained from any such misadventure would amount to a proverbial drop in the ocean of American oil consumption, with little economic benefit.

Creating a Green Economy

Third, a point on which we believe you deserve great credit which has gone unnoticed is the fact that you clearly understand that the way to achieve solid economic growth and create jobs is for the U.S. to become a leader in clean energy and efficiency technology. We are the country uniquely capable of developing the concepts, intellectual property and machines that will lead the global conversion from a planetary fossil fuel system to the renewable energy economy that lies ahead. The green sector can fuel dramatic, real economic growth for decades into the future so that the national debt becomes an ever-smaller percentage of GNP and makes the ratio of debt to economic activity sustainable – just as the economic growth from 1946 to the 1970’s drove down the high GNP-to debt ratio we faced after World War II. We should not abandon this opportunity to China or any other nation. It is a unique chance to provide global leadership and simultaneously solve a major domestic challenge.

Executive Action on Independent Deficit Commission

Lastly, the point in your address that we found extremely compelling was that in response to the Senate decision to block creation of an independent deficit reduction commission, you said, “Fine. I’ll create it by executive order.” We believe, Mr. President, that kind of decisiveness is the difference between being the President and being the 101st Senator. We saw you acting more like the 101st Senator the last six months, not the change-agent President we all know you to be.

The Road Ahead

So, in regard to the substance of what you accomplished in the first year, well done – in fact, extraordinarily well done. But you’ve lost the people’s confidence. They feel confused. They worry that you’ve lost control of the dialogue, that you are jeopardizing your party and consigning your policies to the ash heap of history. What we want to see you do, Mr. President, is to lead with the vigor with which you speak. We want you to identify the targets you will go after in terms simple enough for the public to understand and embrace, and we want you to hit most of them. We believe that the public must begin to see consistent steps toward an objective, no matter how small, that build upon each other to reveal a mosaic of executive orders, federal agency actions and legislation that vividly paints a picture of your accomplishments in translating your remarkable rhetoric into concrete, forward movement for the middle class. And, it must be done on a reasonably quick basis because the attention span of the American public is obviously short. Please remember that your job is to control the conversation so that government can be effective again. We know that is a daunting task, but it is, Mr. President, the reason we elected you.

For those who would obfuscate or block you from achieving your noble goals on behalf of the American people, you must remind them of the immortal words of Thomas Paine, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way!” And then back up that reminder with action that leaves it obvious to the American people who their friends are, and why.

Financial and Health Care Reform

We’re troubled that a year after the crisis, no meaningful financial reform has occurred. Such reform is fundamental to avoiding another meltdown. An independent consumer protection agency intersecting with the financial sector is a critical and long overdue reform.

In a similar vein, we believe it is tragic that we have come so close to health insurance reform only to be frustrated, once again, virtually at the goal line. We do not know how you will achieve health care reform, but we know you must begin to achieve it, even if incrementally, so that all the political capital you have invested is not squandered. We do not believe, nor does any neutral observer, that you will ever have any meaningful bipartisan support. Hence, we don’t know how you will make good on your renewed pledges in this area. There is great danger that your promise will go unfulfilled due to further political stalemates. We don’t know how you will overcome the Republicans choosing to be “the party of No,” but that is the task you must accomplish. All eyes are upon you as you engage in this struggle – and the longer it takes, the more politically wounded you will become. Health care reform is the single biggest item that would allow the US economy to become more competitive on a global scale while humanely dealing with the tragedy of 45 million Americans who cannot obtain insurance, even as the rest of us see our coverage curtailed or canceled, or see our premiums skyrocket.

Time to Lead

Yes, your rhetorical abilities are remarkable. You are wise, well read and thoughtful. You are appropriately self-deprecating. And yet Mr. President, you are losing the confidence of the American people. It is important that we ask why – particularly given the impressive list of accomplishments in your first year, international as well as domestic. By renouncing torture and demonstrating your willingness to take a multilateral approach to foreign policy and climate change, you have restored some of the world’s belief in the strength of American ideals. You have re-engaged our civilized partners in a globally coordinated approach to terror. You have generated respect for American initiatives and have rebuilt the climate of trust we used to enjoy with our allies. Well done. And yet, you are losing the trust of the American people. You are far too smart and wise not to understand why this is happening.

While we realize the political necessity of seeking bipartisanship whenever possible, regrettably, it is a fiction that you must abandon until it is realistic. You must get your programs enacted with the majorities you have in both houses, despite the prohibitive challenge from the Republicans’ unprecedented obstruction and unconstitutional use of threats of filibusters to block legislation.

As noted above, George W. Bush ushered in policies that created an eight-year economic roller coaster ride built upon Wall Street’s greedy pursuits, passed his tax cuts for the wealthy and created two separate “bubbles” that succeeded in making the poor poorer and the rich richer, launched a private army of hired military contractors and fostered a culture of war-profiteering on an unprecedented scale – all without a 60-vote majority. Use your legislative allies to find a solution between now and January 2011, when the new Congress will be seated and can amend Senate Rule 22, which has made the United States the only democracy in the world not governed by majority rule.

Mr. President, you have spoken. Now, you must quickly begin to lead the nation with action regardless of the opposition you encounter. Public perception of your actions will matter more than the reaction to any speech. Your actions must immediately begin to restore a sense of confidence in your administration’s capacity to improve the lives of the American people, the state of our nation as a whole and the well-being of the global society that depends in so many ways upon us. The fate of the republic, and possibly the planet, is in your hands.

About the Author:

Rinaldo Brutoco is a well-known futurist and the founding president of the World Business Academy, a nonprofit think tank launched in 1987 with the mission to educate and inspire the business community to take responsibility for the whole of planetary society. He is a frequent public speaker and a prolific author on renewable energy, climate change and sustainable business strategies. He is the co-author of “Freedom from Mid-East Oil” (2007), a leading book on energy and climate change, and “Profiles in Power” (1997) a college textbook on nuclear power and the dawn of the solar age.