Looking For Leaders

Friday, November 18, 2011 - 13:44

When asked to provide a topic for my remarks at this Atlantic Legal Foundation dinner, the first thing that came to mind was the title “Looking for Leaders.“ Leadership – or the lack thereof – is a theme that seems to define the times we live in.

In mid-October, the Partnership for New York City organized a trip to Washington DC by two dozen CEOs for meetings with Congressional leaders and senior White House officials. The message of our business delegation was the following: American employers will start hiring and investing again only when the federal government demonstrates that it can act decisively to put its fiscal house in order and provide business with a predictable regulatory, tax and legal environment. The hope was that Republicans and Democrats will pursue fiscal reform along the lines championed by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, meaning a sensible but tough-minded approach to restoring the country’s fiscal and economic health.

Much of the discussion focused on the Deficit Super Committee, comprised of six senators and six representatives evenly split between the two parties. New Yorkers called for that committee to meet the November 23, 2011 deadline for bipartisan agreement on a deficit reduction package of $1.2-$1.5 trillion and to provide a timetable for accomplishing necessary tax and entitlement reform. 

The Washington response was that not much is likely to happen until after the 2012 elections. Leaders of both parties understand that the country faces a jobs crisis. They know Americans are demanding solutions and a clear path forward. But they seriously doubt that they can rise to the occasion and get these things accomplished. Instead, they suggested that the CEOs should write op-eds, get on Squawk Box and call up members of Congress, effectively to provide the political pressure the legislators need to do the right thing. This is despite the fact that the standing of corporate executives in public opinion polls is just slightly higher than the nine percent approval rating of Congress. 

I was struck when both a top Congressional Republican and a top White House Democrat suggested, in almost identical words, “Please don’t ask us to go big and bold. We can’t get it done.” They clearly fear being unable to meet raised expectations and then experiencing the same drop in consumer and employer confidence that followed the modest achievements of last summer’s debt ceiling negotiation.

The business executives got similar disappointing responses to every federal action they view as essential to economic recovery: immigration reform – “there is not a chance;” infrastructure bank – “passage very unlikely;” intellectual property protection – “cannot seem to get it on the Congressional calendar.” To say that our delegation of New Yorkers was frustrated with the lack of leadership in the nation’s political capital is an understatement.  

So we returned to New York and the phenomenon of Zucotti Park, where a disenchanted group of Americans have touched a chord. The absence of leaders is a defining characteristic of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Their intention is to restore true popular democracy. They want to retake control of the country from the “corporate elite who own the politicians” – the one percent – on behalf of the 99 percent of Americans who believe they have no say and no future. They believe only then will America tackle its problems of income inequality and joblessness. 

In contrast to both Washington and Zucotti Park, when one looks at city and state governments across America, there are some exciting signs of leadership. Last week, Marty Lipton hosted a discussion with Governor Jack Markell of Delaware, a Democrat and the next chair of the National Governor’s Association, who emanates common sense and vision. On the other side of the aisle there is Chris Christie, a governor who stopped construction on a $9 billion tunnel under the Hudson River because New Jersey is broke. We need that tunnel, but if previous governors had shown this same sense of fiscal responsibility, there would be money to pay for it. Christie declared a day of reckoning.

Our own governor, Andrew Cuomo, also has demonstrated courageous leadership. In his first year in office, Cuomo eliminated a budget deficit of $10 billion without raising taxes and pushed through a property tax cap. He took the first step toward medical malpractice reform with enactment of a trust fund for neurologically impaired infants. Cuomo and many other governors have made tough decisions and taken the heat. They have placed getting something done ahead of being re-elected.

Finally, there is our city. The Partnership for New York City was founded by David Rockefeller, who saw the need for business to provide leadership in order for New York to emerge from the urban crisis of the 1970s and to become the pre-eminent platform for global business. A question I am frequently asked by those who are searching for leaders is, who is the David Rockefeller of this generation? The answer, of course, is Mike Bloomberg, who not only is the city’s richest man and most prolific philanthropist but also is our mayor. Bloomberg led the city’s successful resurgence after 9/11 and its survival of the financial crisis, and he plans a legacy that will include transforming New York into the tech capital of the global innovation economy.

So we do have some great leaders, and I believe it is the responsibility of thoughtful Americans to identify and support them with all the energy and resources we can muster.

Please visit http://www.pfnyc.org/ for more information.