It was pretty stunning to hear President George W. Bush tackle the subject of U.S. competitiveness in his State of the Union address. That was the theme of our CEO Leadership Summit described in our January-February issue, and also the theme of my Editor’s Note. I’m not under any illusion that the leader of the free world is reacting to Chief Executive. Rather, I think we have captured the zeitgeist of corporate leaders, and that’s what the president was responding to.
So what’s my reaction? It would be easy to be cynical about this pronounced shift in Bush’s focus some six years into his presidency, as he faces important midterm elections. The fact that Exxon reported $ 36 billion in profits in 2005 may have forced the Bush camp to put down a marker on the U.S. “addiction” to imported oil, lest they be accused of being in Big Oil’s hip pocket. And he may have soft-pedaled on his push for democracy in the Mideast because, guess what, we had democracy in the Palestinian territories and they elected Hamas.
But let’s look at the glass being half full for a moment. As best I can tell, this is the first time that the Bush Administration has really listened to CEOs about shaping the national agenda. Virtually all of his town-hall sessions with CEOs had been devoted to him telling CEOs what his vision was and why they should support it.
This feels different. It was in response to executives such as Craig Barrett of Intel, John Chambers of Cisco and Norman Augustine, formerly of Lockheed Martin, that Bush said he would accelerate spending on basic scientific research. Augustine helped lead a blue ribbon group that produced the report entitled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.” (If you haven’t read this report, you should. It’s available at www.nap.edu.)
So, granted, Washington is corrupt and debased, and it’s entirely possible that political leaders will be distracted by some new scandal or foreign misadventure. But there appears to be an opening. Legislation has even been introduced called the Protect America’s Competitive Edge Act. It may be possible that we’re seeing a shift in the national political consensus, one that will be reflected not only in midterm elections but also in the presidential election in 2008. CEOs should maintain the pressure on leaders of both the Republicans and Democrats to keep moving in the right direction. That doesn’t mean just lobbying. It requires genuine intellectual leadership.
William J. Holstein