Hiring a President II: Why I Endorse Obama
In 2004, a wrote an essay titled Hiring a President
that looked at the question of why we in the United States elect our
president with a process that looks like a Miss America beauty pageant
crossed with a fundraising marathon. On the other hand, when our
public companies hire a new CEO, they use a much more rational process
that looks at the actual relevant skills of the job candidates.
We can't fix the process in time for the 2008 elections, but I can
look at the candidates as if they were interviewing for the job of CEO
of the US. What is clear in 2008, more so than in 2004, is that what
we need now is a turnaround specialist. The hard part about
effecting a turnaround is fear of change. I remember when I took over
leadership of NASA Ames' Computational Sciences Division. This was a
high-achieving division that was not in need of major changes. But
still, the upper management of the center hired a coach to help me
through the transition period. The coach stressed fear of change as
the main obstacle I would have to overcome. I thought he was
exaggerating the problem, but it turns out he was right. Everyone
wants things to get better, but there is a natural tendency to resist
change. To overcome that, a business needs someone who can institute
The current crop of presidential candidates recognize this and almost
all of them are embracing the idea of change -- at least in
their rhetoric (see video at right). But the next president will have
to not only talk about change; he or she will have to actually
accomplish change in many areas. To do that a new leader has to
do all of the following:
In my view, Barack Obama is the one candidate who can do this
best. He is the most inspirational, he has the integrity to stand up
for what is right and admit when he was wrong (a quality that Clinton
has not mastered, at least with respect to her Iraq war votes), and he
is honest in answering questions where other candidates are political.
- Articulate a clear vision of where the company needs to go, and how
that differs from the current direction.
- Convince employees to buy in to the need for the new approach, and
inspire them to work hard towards the goal.
- Reassure shareholders and analysts that the turnaround process is on
track and that the goal is clear, achievable, and will be profitable.
Most importantly, Obama is willing and able to work with everyone,
not just with his base. Clinton wants to reach out to republicans and
others who disagree with her, and she has demonstrated some good
success in bipartisan work in the senate. But the level of animosity
that many others have towards her may make it difficult for her to
rally politicians and citizens of all parties as president. McCain and
Romney seem to be intent on playing towards their base, and have not
shown how they will reach out. Obama has shown he can do it -- he can
be the president that brings the whole country together and leads us
in a new direction.
I think there are three issues that the next president will have to lead change on:
- Replace our approach to energy and the environment with a new approach
that will be sustainable for centuries to come.
World oil production may well decline during the next president's term (see chart 1 below),
and global climate change will be much cheaper and easier to fix now than in eight years.
- Restore the US's image in the eyes of the world. Opinion of the US has fallen
in most countries during the Bush presidency (see chart 2 below).
- Fix the economy. If the government had to use generally-accepted accounting
practices, the deficit would have been $1,300 billion last year, not the $248 billion
recorded in the official announcements. US citizens now owe $30,000 each
in national debt. Bill Clinton was able to reduce the deficit every year in office,
ending with a surplus. Bush produced the largest deficits in history (see chart 3 below).
One could argue that there are other pressing issues, such as
Iraq, Health Care, Immigration and Terrorism. But the three issues I
have mentioned are certainly critical, and are ones that require
turnaround. The good news is that unlike the current president, all
four of the remaining viable candidates -- Obama, Clinton, McCain and
Romney -- appear to be ready to address the issues seriously. How do
they stand on the issues?
- Energy and Environment: Romney is something of a global climate change denier -- he thinks environmental mandates will hurt the economy, and when in Detroit promised to fight against the regulations to increase fuel efficiency that Bush just signed. This is short-sighted and self-destructive: if he shields US automakers from having to increase fuel efficiency, they will just fall farther behind in the global marketplace. McCain believes climate change is an important issue but wants market forces to fix the problem for him. Clinton and Obama take this issue more seriously, particularly Obama, who understands that the effects of climate change could be devastating, and that a succesful renewed clean energy/transportation industry could be an economic windfall for all involved. Both democrats have appropriate goals for emmission reductions by 2020.
- US Image: McCain and Romney may advocate change, but as supporters of the Bush legacy, they will have a hard time reassuring the world that the US is back on track. Clinton would bring us back to the era
of Clinton I, when the US was viewed in a much better light, but Obama would bring us to the future, and is
a more engaging speaker, is respecting and good at working with those with whom he may have disagreements,
and has lived outside the US and brings an authentic rapport that the other candidates (especially McCain) lack.
- Economy: You might think that Romney, the businessman, would rank best here. Perhaps, if he
were to get into office, he would do a good job. But his current plans center on cutting taxes. He hasn't yet faced up to the reality of the situation, and prefers to make promises of ever bigger tax cuts. In the end, the candidates plans are not all that different.
Compared to 2004
In 2004 I said
that we had a choice between a realist, John Kerry, and an idealogue,
George W. Bush. There are times when the most important need is an
inspirational leader with an unwavering vision, but it is important
that that vision be at least approximately right. My claim was that
Bush did not have the flexibility to articulate a vision that was
approximately right. According to recent
polls, more than two-thirds of Americans agree that Bush is doing
a poor job in office. I regret that we in the realist community were
not able to convince enough people of that in November 2004.
The good news is that all four remaining major candidates this time are realists.
The Power of Search
In September 2007, I got a call from the new Fox Business TV network. They
were planning a piece on "hiring a president" based on the business
point of view to hiring, and wanted me to appear. I quickly realized
that the way they did background research for this piece was to type
"hiring a president" into a search engine, see that my essay came at
the top, and figure that I would be the person to call. I'm not sure
that is the best way to research a piece, but it is a start. I
decided that my friend Steve Kirsch
would be a better person to appear on this show, because he has more
experience as a businessman, and Fox was happy to use him instead. At
the time he was supporting
John Edwards as the most rational candidate, but now that the field
has been narrowed to two from each party, Steve is also endorsing Obama.
Addendum Feb. 11, 2008
Well, Super Tuesday is over, and the field has shrunk: Romney is now
out of the race. What has surprised me, in hearing reactions to this
piece and in talking with friends and family, is the strength of
support for Obama. I knew that my friends tend to be more liberal
and/or linertarian than conservative, so I expected to hear a lot of
support for both Obama and Clinton, a contingent for Ron Paul, and a
smattering of support for others. But instead I've seen overwhelming
support for Obama. People tell me they like Clinton as well, but
they've decided to go with Obama, for the reasons outlined above and
echoed by others
(although I don't buy the "dynasty" objection; I have no prejudice
against someone just because they happen to be related to a previous