Change Has Come to the White House

January 26, 2009
  • Aron Cramer portrait

    Aron Cramer

    President and CEO, BSR

While it's hard to imagine a vast public celebration amid the global economic gloom, there was certainly an air of revelry at the Capitol building last Tuesday as Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th U.S. president.

Almost 2 million people swarmed onto the Mall on a frigid day in Washington, D.C. I was in the throng, snaking into my appointed section for well over an hour. Everyone in line--from my intrepid 11-year old son, Max, to actors Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, to the friendly Wal-Mart furniture buyer in front of me--inched along until we made it through security and into the promised land of the magnificent west front of the Capitol.

The main event, of course, was the swearing-in of the new president and his speech. There was little in his address that focused directly on corporate responsibility, but it’s clear that the Obama administration will change the sustainability landscape. And while it is too early to know exactly what policy prescriptions will emerge, some important trends are clear.

First and foremost, this is a U.S. president who speaks in terms of a new era of responsibility and who addresses the breach of trust by many business people. This is likely the first administration since Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s in which business will not have the benefit of the doubt. This, combined with strong Democratic majorities in both the Senate and House, likely will require that business justify its actions in ways not seen for some time.

Second, the economic meltdown may push climate change lower on the agenda. After all, according to a recent New York Times poll, respondents ranked environmental concerns last out of 20 voter priorities. Peter Schwartz of GBN and I, chatting in the Heathrow Airport lounge yesterday, agreed that the easy and positive things (green jobs, infrastructure) will be done in the name of economic recovery, but a cap-and-trade system or other engineering to address climate may be considered too painful (politically and otherwise) for an economy that’s already hurting. President Obama's announcement this morning, however, signals a clear break from his predecessor.

Third, this government will be more internationalist, which will restore a good deal of the sheen that American institutions lost over the past few years. Even as the American model of business, embodied by the Washington Consensus, has been tarnished, American business has an opportunity to lead, given that much of the rest of the world sees the election of President Obama as a brave act of an open-minded and fair society.

While inaugural ceremonies often tell us very little about the presidencies or world events they usher in, it is clear that there is a hunger for a fresh start, for America and for the world. President Obama represents a generational shift, bringing with him a more active government, more attention to environmental issues, and a revitalized brand of America.

Successful corporate responsibility strategies will need to take this shifting ground into account. Companies that look to restore trust and seek systemic answers to big questions will succeed best.

BSR is here to help you navigate these changing times, so watch this new blog for insight, information, and perspective, as we work together toward the business of a better world.

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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