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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Revamping President Obama’s Economic Policies

The message from Washington this week that Dr. Larry Summers, President Obama’s chief economic advisor, will return to Harvard after the mid-term elections signals an opportunity for the President to revamp his economic policies and institute fundamental changes in his administration’s relationship to the business community.

Further rumors indicate that the President is considering appointing a leading chief executive to this essential post. In this regard his actions would parallel U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s appointment of HSBC Chair Stephen Green as minister of state for trade. Green’s charge is to attract international investment and drive growth in the country’s exports – precisely what the U.S. economy needs, along with a heavy dose of innovation and private investment.

With the exception of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Obama’s entire economics team is turning over, less than two years into this administration’s term. Preceding Summers’ departure were budget chief Peter Orszag and Christina Romer, chair of the council of economic advisors. Given the persistently high jobless rate and slow growth of the economy, the timing is right for the President to undertake a thorough review with a new team to develop a new set of pro-growth policies.

The President’s original team did a good job in stabilizing the U.S. economy with government spending and stopping the bleeding in terms of job losses and personal bankruptcies. However, it is been largely ineffective in stimulating private sector growth, jobs and innovation. As a result, the economy has stagnated, relying too heavily on the Fed’s monetary policies and massive deficit spending. These moves were intended to drive consumer spending, but with 26 million people still looking for full-time jobs, they obviously are not working.

It’s time for a sharp change in direction: the President should pivot to a new set of policies aimed at “Investing in America” to unlock corporate spending and stimulate hiring in the private sector.

His recent proposals on Labor Day were encouraging. The President offered a 100 percent deduction for capital investment until the end of 2011, an increase in research and development tax credits while making them permanent, and an additional $50 billion in infrastructure spending. All three initiatives suggest the President’s thinking is finally moving toward private-sector investment and job creation, and away from trying to cure the economy’s ills entirely with Keynesian approaches to massive deficits.

It is none too soon. A new economics team can give the Obama presidency – which inevitably will suffer significant reductions in November in its enormous Congressional majorities and possibly the loss of House leadership – a much needed shot in the arm.

This situation is similar to President Clinton’s challenge in 1994 after the Republicans’ mid-term gains swept them into House leadership. Clinton brought in Republican presidential advisor David Gergen, who helped him reshape the remaining six years of his presidency. After that, President Clinton relied more heavily on Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who masterfully guided the U.S economy to its strongest growth period in the last fifty years. Clinton’s policies shifted to the center, as he often co-opted Republican opposition in Congress. They won the confidence of the business community and stimulated private-sector spending. Twenty-three million jobs were added as corporate growth and profits surged.

Ironically, in those days no one ever complained about tax rates being too high. Small wonder: unlike the last decade with Bush’s tax cuts, personal earnings and capital gains under Clinton were exceptional, buoyed by the strongest stock market in fifty years. As a result of low unemployment, high individual earnings, and strong corporate profits, tax receipts surged and the U.S. government actually produced a surplus for three consecutive years! That’s a sharp contrast with the enormous deficits compiled by the Bush and Obama administrations in the past decade. Who says deficits don’t matter?

I have longed argued that President Obama needs a savvy business leader in the White House, advising him on a daily basis. With Summers’ pending departure, he has his opportunity. The good news is that there are many strong candidates from which to choose. However, the position must have adequate authority and influence to get chief executives to give up their current positions to serve their country, just as Henry Paulson did in 2006. Here is my short list of recommended candidates, all of whom are current or former CEOs:

Anne Mulcahy, Xerox: She did a remarkable job in saving Xerox from bankruptcy and restoring Xerox’s innovative spirit. She has also served on an important set of corporate boards so she knows how corporate leaders and board members think. (Full disclosure: we served on the Target board together for nearly a decade.)

Eric Schmidt, Google; John Chambers, Cisco; John Donahoe, eBay; or John Doerr, Kleiner Perkins: All four are extraordinary innovation leaders who could refocus the U.S. economy on R&D, innovation, and creativity that will add sustainable jobs for the next decade.

Ed Whitacre, General Motors: Whitacre a spectacular job did in turning around General Motors with his practical, no-nonsense style. If the President wants to reinvigorate the mainstream of American companies to get back to growth strategies, Whitacre is the perfect person.

Jeff Immelt, General Electric: It would be very hard to get him to step down from GE, but like Whitacre, he is a tremendous mainstream executive who has been a big advocate of manufacturing in the U.S.

Jamie Dimon, JP Morgan Chase: He has done a tremendous job in successfully guiding his bank through the economic meltdown of 2008-09, incorporating Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual, and positioning JP Morgan for future success. He knows Wall Street as well as anyone and would also be a superb Treasury Secretary if Geithner decides to follow Summers in stepping down.

That’s a fulsome list for the President to choose from. All of these CEOs are strong individuals who can hold their own in the political in-fighting in the White House and in Congress, yet all have the long-term vision and courage to rebuild the strength of the U.S. economy.

If the President has the wisdom to choose one of them and take their advice, his next six years could rival Clinton’s for economic success. For the long-term health of our country, let’s hope he does so.