Obama offers hope for responsible business

By Andy Savitz

Ethical Corporation • November 7, 2008

US president-elect Barack Obama will want business to help him heal the nation by working with the state to tackle social and environmental issues

Hope is running rampant in America again, an immediate post-election uplift felt in many quarters like the night we landed on the moon.

Although we had known in advance that the lunar module would land and that Neil Armstrong would get out and speak to us from the moon, we were flabbergasted when it actually occurred. We were simply not prepared for the stunning reality of it. How could we be?

On election night, the only person who seemed prepared was the president-elect himself, Barack Obama. He took the podium to remind us that, appearances to the contrary, the election was not the change he had been talking about. It was merely an opportunity to change, and that hard work of making change would now begin.

Harkening back to our last great awakening in the 1960s, Obama invoked the spirit of John F. Kennedy – the first Catholic to be elected president – to suggest that much would be expected of us – citizens, communities and corporations.

Obama’s election has portents for everything, from politics to race relations to corporate responsibility. We can look for specific corporate responsibility-related initiatives that may become part of his first 100 days, as well as overarching themes that may come to define his first term.

Climate action

Climate change, one of his recurrent campaign messages, is the easiest and most dramatic way for president Obama to deliver on his promise of bi-partisanship at home and to show the rest of the world that we are back in the international relations business.

The financial mess may slow it down, but we can expect to see a complete turnabout in Washington, with national cap and trade legislation and the emergence of the US as a leader in the global climate change negotiations.

The green economy is another enormous sweet spot for an Obama administration: a way to create jobs, address the energy crisis and reduce our dependence on imported oil.

Renewable energy, clean-tech and mega-investments in water and sewer infrastructure will be major parts of his economic game plan, along with strong support for advanced coal technologies.

Nuclear power is the wild card: Obama is a lukewarm supporter, but is being advised by fervent opponents, including Robert Kennedy, Jr. who may wind up as the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator.

Poor first

On social issues, an Obama administration will be focused on solving problems facing the middle class and the urban poor, and working more closely to improve conditions in the developing world. So look for additional corporate responsibility opportunities at the base of the pyramid.

Domestically, corporations would do well to figure out the impact of various health care reform packages and to ensure that diversity is high on the agenda.

Of course, Obama’s most pressing challenge is to repair the economy. He was admirably restrained in not bashing corporations during the campaign, especially given an ideal opportunity to do so during the market meltdown. Instead, he wisely laid the blame on failed Bush-McCain economic policies rather than on greedy, financial fat cats.

Yet lenders who prey on unsuspecting borrowers probably offend Obama as much as anything, and as a former community organiser he is well aware of the breach of trust that has occurred in the name of short term profits.

Most Americans, especially his most ardent supporters, are feeling ill-served by large corporations and we can expect the incoming administration to bring serious pressure to bear on business to take the high road more often in the future.

Which brings us to some general Obama themes and strategies that will be important for corporate responsibility watchers and practitioners.

Co-operation

Ever since he hit the national stage at the 2004 Democratic Convention, Obama has presented himself as a conciliator and he did so again on election night: “There are no blue states or red states, only the United States.”

Even more than most politicians, he seeks consensus and will instinctively look to create partnerships between government and business, if they can be shown to create prosperity for all.

Corporations should look for ways to help, because there is a fist in the velvet glove. Unlike his predecessor, Obama will not hesitate (and some would say he might welcome the chance) to exert the regulatory power of government to make change.

Even John McCain suggested that the financial crisis was abetted by lax regulation. And a new Congress, now brimming with Democrats, will likely be looking to flex its muscles.

Yet, as his defeated opponent acknowledged, the president-elect has given millions of people reason to hope and there is hope for the business community too.

With the exception of financial oversight, Obama is not likely to come out pushing for new regulations. In fact, he may put a brake on an overzealous Congress, at least at first.

Obama has promised change and he will do everything in his power to deliver it. Smart businesses and industries will find ways to help him make change that creates benefits for all. Otherwise they run the risk of being changed, on his terms. And judging from the looks of it, yes he can.

 

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