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CEOs Take Center Stage in the New Political Regime

CEOs have a critical role to play in reordering politics, fixing the parties, returning to the public square and working in the interest not only of business, but of the country at large.

5 / Get involved closer to home. From issues of business climate and regulation to infrastructure and the fitness of the labor force, CEOs typically can have the most impact closest to where they do business, especially mid-market chiefs. This means wielding influence on politicians like city-council members, state legislators and governors, as well as becoming active in metropolitan and regional business groups.

This approach also calls for companies and CEOs to act alone when necessary on the community level. “It’s easy to be isolated and look at your business and how good or bad things may be,” Hebert says. But CEOs “need to take a closer look. It’s not about complaining about what’s wrong with the country, but about doing things that can make the country and the world better.”

“It’s not about complaining about what’s wrong with the country, but about doing things that can make the country and the world better.

For example, because Hebert is concerned about failing public education, more than a dozen of Atrion’s 60 employees mentor a total of 20 students at a charter school in Providence. “My goal is to get them to graduation,” he says. “It’s the sort of thing that every small business could do to have a positive impact on our society.”

6 / Focus on jobs and growth. A uniting force for CEOs and politicians on both sides could be their dedication to sparking economic growth and, specifically, job creation and preservation. Trump certainly proved the resonance of this issue. Now Democrats as well as Republicans “must address the needs of the middle class in a better way,” Lippman says. “Job creation tends to do that.”

A focus on long-term job creation must include boosting workforce development, White argues. “Whether it’s an automated facility or a low-skilled facility or a call center, we’ve got a labor problem,” he says.

7 / Engage on trade. Trump has demonstrated the importance of his stance on trade with pre-term initiatives such as pushing Carrier into keeping about 1,000 jobs in Indiana instead of moving them to Mexico.

As Blinder puts it, trade-involved CEOs will have to decide “how they will react to potential presidential [pressure]. There will be more cases where companies want to move jobs to Mexico or Vietnam or Europe. These things happen all the time, and we’ve yet to learn how frequently and vigorously President Trump will try to browbeat people on that. And then for CEOs, there will be the huge decision: how do they react to the browbeating?”

Yet trade remains “a place where business leaders could engage in a positive fashion,” Odland says. “You can’t export without allowing imports. But CEOs can help focus on fairer trade where people are engaging and following the rules and there’s a level playing field. Business leaders may be best suited to make this point.”

Maggie Wilderotter, former CEO of Frontier Communications notes, “Trump is a businessman who does business internationally, not just in the U.S. So there is common ground in his background and understanding that companies grow not just at home but also abroad.”

In any event, notes Brooks, “Trump won’t be great on trade from most CEOs’ perspectives; but there are degrees of badness”—meaning that business leaders are hoping the new president’s pro-growth tilt will help offset damage that might be created by his trade policies.


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