In his history making race for the White House against Hillary Clinton and then John McCain, Barack Obama made lots of promises – according to my count, 33 of them in his acceptance speech alone. Following are some examples which you might want to clip out, tape to your refrigerator and check off when the promises are kept. Four years from now your tally might help answer the question of whether Obama is all rhetoric or has some substance.
- Stop giving tax breaks to corporations that ship jobs overseas.
- Eliminate capital gains taxes for small businesses and start-ups.
- Cut taxes for 95 percent of all working families.
- End our dependence on oil from the Middle East in 10 years.
- Help our auto industry retool to make fuel-efficient cars.
- Make it easier for Americans to afford these new cars.
- Invest $150 billion over the next 10 years in affordable, renewable sources of energy.
- Provide every child a world-class education.
- Recruit an army of new teachers and pay them higher salaries.
- Provide affordable, accessible health care for every American.
- Protect Social Security for future generations.
- End the war in Iraq and finish the fight against al-Qaida.
- Rebuild our military to meet future conflicts.
- Build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century.
- Restore our moral standing.
When Obama made the above promises, many asked how he was going to pay for them … and that was before Sept. 15 when the stock market tanked. People aren’t talking much about 9/11 anymore. The date on their minds is 9/15.
According to many of the pundits on election night, the financial crisis is the event that clinched victory for our president-elect. That may be, but two questions follow: How is he going to pay for all his campaign promises when the bad economy won’t generate the needed tax revenue, and how is Obama going to fix the bad economy?
In his acceptance speech in Denver in August, Obama used the pronoun “I” a lot. I’m going to do this and I’m going to do that. In his acceptance speech last Tuesday in Grant Park, he used the word “we.” I think the shift in language was appropriate, because I don’t think anyone – including Obama, Paulson, Bernanke, Greenspan or the soon to be named new secretary of the treasury – know for sure what to do.
Ronald Heifetz in Leadership without Easy Answers argues that when there are experts who know how to fix a problem, the job of a leader is to assemble them and follow their advice. But, he continues, when no one knows the solution, then the task of a leader is to assemble the stakeholders and together try things until something works.
In my view, the financial problems we’re facing are highly complex and somewhat unprecedented. When Obama asked for everyone’s help – even from those who didn’t vote for him – I hope what he was doing was admitting that no one knows for sure what to do about the mess we’re in, and providing leadership without easy answers.
A little closer to home, I have a suspicion that the challenges facing our school board are in the same category – complex and unprecedented. If that’s true, I hope Superintendent Lou Cavallo and the board follow what I think is Obama’s lead, i.e. don’t pretend there are easy answers, engage in a process that allows all the stakeholders to participate, and be willing to try one thing and then another – without apology – until we hit on something that works.