FOR TWO MONTHS, Chief Executive has been asking our readers how you perceive the issues facing your businesses and the country. First, we asked through our email polling what you think the top challenges are. Then we asked whether President George W. Bush or Sen. John Kerry has the better policies for managing these issues. We have done this without resorting to personality or partisanship. As a result, we have laid a dispassionate intellectual foundation to state that an overwhelming majority of CEOs prefer Bush’s leadership. Whether the issue is health care or homeland security or taxation, chief executives believe Bush has better answers.
But if CEO support for Bush’s policies is clear, it’s also quite evident that the American business community isn’t entirely happy with his administration of the nation’s affairs. Assuming that Bush wants to consolidate support among business leaders in the weeks that remain before the election, here are the key items on the CEO wish list that he should address:
- Send a signal that he will ease back on the religious and ideological attempt to convert the entire Middle East to liberal democracy. Bush must be strong in the war against terrorism, but converting the world of Islam is a flawed, unrealistic goal, which repeated waves of Westerners have discovered ever since the Crusades. It also is polarizing world opinion. The risk is that America will become isolated and even more mistrusted. That’s bad for business.
- Tilt away from the hard right on social issues. Most chief executives call themselves conservatives, and that means they believe in letting market forces prevail. They don’t believe in government attempting to control too muchï¿½ï¿½quot; and that feeling extends to the very private choices people make in their own lives. They also understand that their customer base and work force are undergoing dramatic demographic changes.
- Get a grip on spending. No matter if Vice President Dick Cheney said that “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter,” the near-universal conviction among CEOs is that they do matter. Fiscal discipline is something they feel in their very bones. Washington has been engaged in a downright pork barrel orgy. Bush should signal that he will adopt greater discipline.
- Improve communications with corporate leaders. If Bush wins again, he should talk more to business. Shortly after winning in 2000, Bush held a summit with CEOs in Austin, Tex. But it did not lead to a full and robust dialogue between business and the Bush inner circle. The presence of former CEOs Paul O’Neill and John Snow in the administration also failed to open a dialogue between Bush and business leaders because O’Neill and Snow were marginalized.
If Bush better understood how real wealth is generated for all Americans, he would not be even tempted to pursue policies that alienate or divide. He would know that business needs a climate of relative stability and predictability, at home and internationally, over the long term. If he can shift course ever so slightly, Bush would be remembered as a far better president than he was during his first term in office.