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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Obama 2.0: The President’s Speech

In the State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Obama has the opportunity to recapture the hearts and minds of the American people and unify the country. Will he seize the moment?

He did so brilliantly in the 2008 campaign by integrating visionary leadership with pragmatic politics. When he became president, the American people expected him to inspire us to restore America’s leadership at home and in the world.

Instead, President Obama abandoned any pretense of vision and narrowed his focus down Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill. Led by Rahm Emmanuel, his “win-lose” chief of staff, he played “inside the Beltway” politics so well he ignored the moderates and independents who elected him.

He used Democratic majorities to force through major legislation: $878 billion stimulus virtually ignoring private enterprise; health care focused on access to the exclusion of cost and quality; and financial services requiring two years of regulation writing just to define derivatives and proprietary trades.

In the process the president failed to convince the American people why these moves would help them. Mr. Obama’s visionary rhetoric of the campaign turned into “political speak” that was both confusing and uninspiring. Not understanding the benefits, people turned against his initiatives, giving Republicans an enormous opening.

Since the November election, President Obama seems like a different leader. He is listening again to a wide range of thoughtful people. He has replaced his hardball chief of staff with a mature, experienced business executive. He upgraded his chief economic adviser to a pragmatic negotiator who gets things done.

He is reaching out to chief executives and responding to their input, while dropping his antibusiness rhetoric. He is focusing on private sector jobs, domestic manufacturing and exports. He even negotiated a centrist tax package with the Republicans that will serve as a major economic stimulus.

Now he has one more task: to present a compelling vision to the American people of where America is headed and how it will regain its stature in the world.

Everyone knows he can do this better than anyone since John F. Kennedy. The question is not “can he?” but “will he?” In Arizona, at a memorial service for the victims of the Tucson shooting rampage, he seemed to regain the touch. Now he has to broaden the issues and set the course for the rest of his presidency.

What should he say on Tuesday night? Here’s the theme I would propose:

“It’s time to invest in America. For decades we have helped the rest of the world. We aren’t abandoning them, but the pressing need is to invest here at home. We must commit ourselves to building America for the 21st century. Here are seven areas for investment to become globally competitive once again.”

Health and Wellness The health reform act granted access to 25 million more Americans, but offers no concrete way to pay for their health care. The president should declare a “national health and wellness campaign” and charge Americans with taking responsibility for their health. Incentives need to be reversed to reward people for staying healthy and holding medical systems responsible for keeping people healthy.

Education The United States is rapidly deteriorating into a two-tier education system, which can only lead to greater unemployment and political rifts. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s “race to the top” is on the right track, but we need to educate people for 21st century jobs.

Infrastructure The antiquated infrastructure in the United States will take huge investments to bring it up to world-class standards. Are we prepared to raise the bar to the levels of Europe, Japan and even China?

Jobs With 27 million Americans looking for full-time jobs, America cannot have a vibrant economy until people get back to work. This requires investments in retraining and vocational/technical education.

Manufacturing and Exports The manufacturing sector and exports are suddenly showing signs of life, led by the resurgence of the Big Three domestic automobile makers. President Obama’s new Jobs and Competitiveness Council, led by Jeffrey R. Immelt of General Electric, is an important first step. New tax incentives will spur investments in automated, high-tech manufacturing and increase exports.

Innovation Entrepreneurship and innovation are America’s competitive advantages. We need to stimulate investments in research and development, inventions, breakthrough ideas and venture capital.

New companies and small businesses New jobs come from start-ups and small businesses. We need to ease regulations to let companies build their businesses and expand hiring.

If the president begins such an “Invest in America” program and asks Americans to make sacrifices to bring this country back to global leadership, he can set off an American renewal.

It can be done. What is needed is the president’s vision on Tuesday.


 

Posted in the New York Times DealBook on Monday, January 24, 2010