Dear President-Elect Biden: An Open Letter From Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson

In an open letter, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson advises the incoming leader on building unity, tackling the pandemic and building a fair economy.

Arne Sorenson

Editor’s Note: Arne Sorenson, President and CEO of Marriott International and our 2019 Chief Executive of the Year, recently published this letter to President Elect Joe Biden. We’ve republished it here with his permission. 

Dear President-elect Biden,

While there is still some noise remaining from this election, it now seems very clear that you will be the 46th President of the United States. Congratulations to you and to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. This is a history-making team and I wish you great success as you take office.

Four years ago, I wrote an open letter to then President-elect Trump. It was an emotional time for many, including many of the hundreds of thousands of associates who work in our hotels across the U.S. and the world. I thought it important, at that time, to face the moment and think deeply about how I would advise the newly elected president to lead, given the positions he had articulated during the campaign. Perhaps I should start by confessing that my letter appears to have had no impact on President Trump’s policies, but I do know that the letter was broadly read and appreciated.

Unity

Four years have passed since that time, but much of the commentary from that earlier letter still seems germane. As your campaign has acknowledged repeatedly, perhaps the most important priority today is for you to bring America back together. We have been ripped apart by partisanship, which has had a profound impact on families and workplaces across the country. We used to be able to talk to each other in spite of our differences. In fact, we could talk specifically about those differences. That seems to be a thing of the past, but we need it to be a thing of the present and the future. I am grateful that this issue is at the top of your list. You will have to fight to keep it there.

In my letter of four years ago, I encouraged President-elect Trump to allow Secretary Clinton to ride off into the sunset, with thanks for her public service, and not to pursue her for any alleged wrongdoings. I would encourage you to do the same: let the Trump Administration come to an end. Don’t use the tools of the federal government to pursue him for wrongdoing. Moving forward rather than focusing on past grievances will be yet another signal of your commitment to unity.

To really build unity, we need to have a sense that government speaks for all of us. Of course, that starts with those who have been most deprived of opportunity. Unity will be unachievable if we don’t reckon with issues of racial equity and justice and take steps to meaningfully address systemic racism. It has been far too long that we have acknowledged this need and yet have failed to meet it. Everybody deserves dignity and opportunity regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs or ability.

It is also important that you focus on ensuring that dignity and opportunity are available to Americans who have increasingly sensed that the system has left them behind. These people, often working in our service industries, living or working in our smaller towns or the countryside or not finding work at all, need to know that their lives and livelihoods are important to your administration as well. This need for dignity and opportunity is urgent in our biggest cities and in smaller communities and the countryside.

One last thought on unity: too often it seems like government cannot act because the process of making legislation has become too ambitious. We can find common ground on many aspects of an issue, but then one side senses they have leverage in the process and demands resolution of another, often unrelated, issue in order to get to agreement. If we could instead make progress where alignment can be reached and leave the balance for later discussion, we can both achieve some progress and prove that government can work. You spent nearly four decades in the Senate, the greatest deliberative body in America, and can bring those skills of compromise to bear.

Tackling the pandemic

Besides building unity, your campaign properly focused on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. You have rightly pointed out that we have lost far too many lives and we are seeing the virus surge again all across the United States. COVID-19 threatens our lives and our livelihoods. I applaud your early appointment of health care experts to advise your administration on combating the pandemic. We need to rely on the experts, and we need to be transparent with the facts, both of which you acknowledged during the campaign.

We also need to factor in the impact of the pandemic on the economy. Small businesses across America are suffering and far too often failing because their customer base has nearly disappeared. We see it most obviously in businesses like restaurants, coffee shops, dry cleaners, florists and the like who depend on local workers. With downtown office buildings and office parks closed or sparsely populated, they have no one to serve. Safely opening workplaces will have a positive ripple effect on local businesses and their employees who are now far too frequently out of work.

A first step, hopefully addressed even before you take office, is to get COVID-19 legislation passed that will provide critical resources to more effectively tackle the pandemic and stimulate the economy. It was disappointing to many Americans that our government could not agree on and pass legislation before the election.

My advice would be to have that legislation focus on three issues: 1) ensure we are doing everything possible to combat the virus: make sure patients have insurance coverage for treatment, that we have the PPE, testing and therapeutics needed and that we are doing everything possible to advance the broad and speedy availability of effective vaccines; 2) extend unemployment insurance to cover those who have lost their jobs because of this crisis, at coverage levels that match, as closely as possible – but not exceed – the income that was lost; and 3) extend support to the small businesses that have been devastated by this crisis.

All else is secondary. Let’s not load up the legislation with other, less germane issues. If certain aspects of the battle against COVID-19 can’t be resolved quickly, let’s move forward on those issues on which there is agreement.

Building a fair economy

When the pandemic begins to recede, we will need to turn to the underlying economy, which will be suffering not only from the impact of the pandemic but also from long-standing structural problems. Among other consequences of the pandemic, there will be a major increase in our federal debt, and we owe it to our children and grandchildren to put us on a path to fiscal health.

You have proposed increases in income taxes for the highest paid individuals and for corporations as important steps to get our budget balanced and to address fairness. My advice to you is to move first on personal income taxes, which will undoubtedly need to be raised to address these issues. No one likes to see their own tax rates go up, but an increase in the top rates for top earners will not harm our national competitiveness if those increases are not extreme.

Increasing the corporate tax rate is more complicated because that action could drive new business away from the U.S. to jurisdictions where tax rates are lower. Our corporate tax rate was dangerously uncompetitive, and we need to be careful about becoming uncompetitive again. Before raising the corporate tax rate, we should eliminate the deductions and other tax advantages that have built up over the decades as part of the government’s effort to benefit some industries or encourage certain business behaviors that were desired. We can drive the rate corporations actually pay closer to the stated rate and increase the taxes actually paid by business if the government gets out of the business of using tax policy to pick winners and losers in our economy.

There has also been considerable discussion for many years about the inadequacy of our federal minimum wage, which hasn’t been increased in decades. It should be increased, but the devil is in the details. Moving too aggressively will jeopardize the recovery in jobs we will need on the other side of the pandemic. Also, what is an appropriate minimum wage in many of our cities will literally strangle small businesses in other markets. Let’s start immediately but phase in increases in the minimum wage in multiple steps and index it to cost of living reference points that account for regional differences.

Another issue that has proved extraordinarily contentious in our society is immigration. For many of us, it is equally absurd to propose that we refuse to acknowledge that we have more than 10 million undocumented immigrants in the United States who are forced to live on the margins of society as it is to propose that anyone who comes to the United States must be allowed to enter and will immediately be covered by all aspects of our social safety net. There has been little effort to build a public consensus about immigration for far too many years. We need to get to work on building that consensus, moving as quickly as we can to allow those who are already here to be the productive members of our society they want to be, while creating transparent rules and predictability about what levels of future immigration should be permitted. Immigrants built this country and done right, will be part of the success story of our future.

President-elect Biden, you fought a hard campaign in an unprecedented time. You won this race fairly and with dignity. Now comes the hard part – rebuilding our unity, fighting a historic pandemic and building an economy for sustainable and inclusive prosperity. This is no small task, but there are millions of Americans cheering your success, whether they voted for you or your opponent.

Let me be just one among the many to wish you all the best.

Arne M. Sorenson