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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Obama’s Choice on Jobs: Politics or Policy

President Obama held his second meeting with his new Jobs and Competitiveness Council earlier this month at an electronics plant in North Carolina. With job growth stagnant and the nation’s underemployment stuck at 16 percent — that’s 25 million Americans — the meeting represented an ideal opportunity for the president to develop a list of sound ideas he could put into action.

It didn’t happen. Instead, the meeting turned into a campaign “photo op” in a swing state Mr. Obama carried in 2008. The A-list of leaders who run General Electric, American Express, DuPont, Facebook, Xerox and Procter & Gamble was impressive. The ideas coming from the meeting were not. The group produced only a tepid list of quick-fix ideas rather than fundamental solutions to put jobs on a solid growth trajectory.

Instead of boarding Air Force One for Florida fund-raisers after the meeting, Mr. Obama should have boarded Amtrak for South Carolina. Boeing’s chief executive, W. James McNerney Jr., who heads up the president’s Exports Council, would have gladly given him a tour of Boeing’s new aircraft factory that will manufacture its the flagship 787 Dreamliner. Boeing has billions of dollars in aircraft orders for export and has spent $1 billion in constructing the plant and hired the first 1,000 workers. Thousands have applied for the remaining 5,000 jobs.

But there is a problem: Mr. Obama’s National Labor Relations Board has sued Boeing to stop production for locating in a right-to-work union state. The issues are being contended in a Seattle court, where Boeing has recently hired an additional 2,000 unionized employees. Years of appeals lie ahead.

While in South Carolina, the president could have also stopped by BMW’s and Mercedes’s highly successful automobile plants. The irony here is obvious: German companies are permitted to produce in a right-to-work state, but not American companies.

These two situations typify why the nation’s jobless rate is stuck at a perilously high level, one that will threaten Mr. Obama’s 2012 re-election bid. Neither photo opportunities nor empty pronouncements can shroud the ugliness of the present economic malaise or the magnitude of the crisis this country now faces.

Two years ago, I wrote that the president is like the Roman god Janus, with two heads facing in opposite directions, as Mr. Obama the politician pulls against Mr. Obama the leader. Since 2009, Mr. Obama the politician has prevailed, but time is running out for Mr. Obama the leader to implement policies that restore America’s economic competitiveness.

First-hand reports from chief executives who have met with the president indicate that he listens hard and seems to understand the deeper problems, but fails to take action. Or stated more clearly, he takes only politically expedient actions.

These leaders are pragmatists. With the American economy growing at less than 2 percent and emerging markets at 10 percent, they are focusing on overseas sales — and jobs are following. If you were a chief executive with responsibility for tens of thousands of employees, would you do anything different?

In addition to stagnant domestic growth, these chief executives cite several limitations that keep them from investing at home: political gridlock in Washington, the unpredictable regulatory environment, excessive corporate tax rates and uncertainty over health care and financial regulation.

To get the American economy growing again, a multifaceted plan is required to address these issues:

1. Resolve the budget gridlock with a solid deficit reduction plan rather than letting the debt ceiling imperil the nation’s solvency.

2. Reduce regulations that suffocate jobs. Why let politicians block the remarkable shale gas discoveries that would reduce pollution and help balance the nation’s energy supplies? Why is the Food and Drug Administration holding up so many life-saving drugs and devices? According to California Healthcare Institute, clearances for devices are down 43 percent and approval times have lengthened by 75 percent.

3. Lower basic rates to make corporate tax rates competitive with other nations, while eliminating corporate deductions to yield a more equitable tax system. To incentivize companies to bring back the $1 trillion trapped overseas, reduce repatriation tax rates to 15 percent from 35 percent, if the money is invested in physical assets in the United States.

4. Clarify lingering uncertainty created by the health care and financial services laws. The buck now rests, or stagnates, in the regulatory agencies. Meanwhile, small businesses cannot get loans and will not hire workers without knowing the cost of their health care. Furthermore, Medicare is on course toward bankruptcy. The McKinsey Quarterly reports that 30 percent of employers will plan to stop offering employer-sponsored insurance in the years after 2014. The Obama administration must reach agreement on practical rules to enable these vital sectors to move forward.

Instead of addressing these problems with policies that would solve them but might cause some political pain, President Obama continues to put politics over policy. The nation continues to suffer.

 


Originially posted in the New York Times Dealbook on June 27, 2011