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 change.


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.

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.

The Details

I think there are three issues that the next president will have to lead change on:
  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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).
Peak oil depletion scenarios
(1)

(2)

(3)

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 president).