Hope is Not a Strategy: A Letter to President Obama

By Benjamin Ola Akande
January 22, 2009

Dear President Obama,

During the campaign, you offered America hope, and promised to restore a civility and practicality to the nation’s highest office so that, together, we could rise to the challenges and opportunities that lay at our doorstep. Now it’s time to make some wise choices.

In your acceptance speech on the evening of Nov. 4, 2008, you were pointed in your statement that, “while we breathe, we hope.” As President, your greatest challenge will be effectively leading a cabinet of highly qualified and highly opinionated individuals who will undoubtedly have differing ideas on how best to resolve the major issues that we face. Your leadership will be tested early and often and while you have assured Americans that there will be setbacks and false starts, your willingness to make tough choices early on will set the tone for a revival of a shell-shocked economy and a battle-fatigued nation. Yet, the fact remains that hope will not reduce housing foreclosures. Hope does not stop a recession. Hope cannot create jobs. Hope will not prevent catastrophic failures of banks. Hope is not a strategy.

President Obama, I would like to offer you 10 priorities to consider:

1. The Deficit. Don’t be concerned about increasing the deficit in the short term. There is an urgent need to stimulate the economy now–not at any price, but almost. Your recovery plan must combine tax cuts and structured spending in areas that foster long-term economic growth, specifically, energy, health care and education. This is one time when we need to act for today to ensure that tomorrow will be much better.

2. The Auto Industry. I want to urge you to reject the possibility of extending additional bailout monies to the Big Three. Chapter 11 bankruptcy is the best thing that can happen to these automakers. They need help quickly, but not in the form of government largesse. This is a time for displaying “tough love” and not enabling poor performance, corporate arrogance and unwise decisions. They will thank you in the long run.

3. The New New Deal. There is urgency to rebuild America’s roads and bridges, but the real opportunity is to anchor your recovery plan on a renewed energy policy that is timely and targeted. The imperative should entail a: 1) green bailout for U.S. automakers; 2) green infrastructure; 3) tax credit for companies to produce alternative energy; 4) construction program for a new smart electric grid; and 5) increased investment in mass transit using green technology. The projects must be shovel-ready to get people back to work immediately.

4. 2009 Homeowner Protection Act. President Obama, now is the opportunity to change the bankruptcy laws to protect homeowners from the vagaries of the marketplace. We have expedited Chapter 11 bankruptcy for businesses to keep them from going under when they run into financial turbulence, and we should do no less for homeowners. It does no one any good to force poor and middle-income Americans out of their homes, and we know that vacant houses destroy even the best neighborhoods. An expedited homeowner protection plan would allow for the restructuring of the mortgages of millions of Americans who are under water. Stemming the flood of foreclosures will reinvigorate the confidence of banks and provide a shot in the arm for the credit market, putting the economy back on the right foot.

5. Strengthening Middle Class America. Your administration should push to expand the earned income tax credit as a relief measure for the middle class and give Americans making less than $150,000 a $500 tax credit per person on the first $8,100 in income. This will increase the rate of spending and the rate of savings by the middle class, which will be a source of new capital to spur growth.

6. A Health Plan for All. The greatest fear among most Americans is the possibility of losing their jobs and with the loss of jobs comes the real possibility of loss of health insurance. President Obama, we need to have a comprehensive program that provides health insurance to the unemployed and to the uninsured and it must happen post-haste. For a nation of our comparative wealth to have any of our citizens go without heath care is nothing short of criminal.

7. Rewrite Financial Service Laws. One of the key reasons for the current financial crisis has been weak regulation of the financial services industry. There needs to be a comprehensive overhaul of enforcement policies of the Securities Exchange Commission. Require disclosure and stipulate new accounting requirements.

8. Restructure Bailout. The first $350 billion of the financial market bailout has done very little to jump-start the economy. The next $350 installment must be directed at assisting homeowners and expanding consumer credit.

9. Foster a Bipartisan Approach. Divisive politics got us into this mess. Unifying politics can help get us out of it. The country can no longer afford to see things in terms of red and blue or black and white. The enduring solutions will emerge from the gray.

10. Caution to Consumers. President Obama, I urge you to use your presidential pulpit to speak to Americans, to encourage them to be cautious and prudent in their spending. While consumer spending is a key to the economic revival, at times it may be wise to counsel consumers to–in the words of former St. Louis Fed President Bill Poole–“Put their foot on the brake way before they get to the stop sign.”

What America needs, more than ever, is your ability to give hope to America through your leadership. May you have the inner strength to move this nation from uncertainty to certainty. I wish you well.

Benjamin Ola Akande is the dean, School of Business and Technology, at Webster University in St. Louis, MO.