Obama to Private Sector: CSR Is Your Obligation (and It’s Good for the Economy, Too)

barack_obama_with_supermanDuring his weekly address on Saturday, President Obama told the private sector that it was their obligation to keep their businesses on American soil, to invest in America's clean energy future and to hire Americans and pay them fairly.

While his message -- a preview of tomorrow's highly-anticipated Chamber of Commerce speech -- wasn't necessarily an overt rebuke of American firms that set up shop abroad or hire underpaid illegal aliens or foreign workers or invest in old, carbon-spewing technologies, it was a hard-hitting directive that burnished his new image as the nation's CEO-in-Chief.

AMERICA’S “SPUTNIK MOMENT”

Throwing down the gauntlet with one hand while jingling the nation’s piggy bank with the other, Obama also made a challenge to the scientific community: “If you assemble teams of the best minds in your field, and focus on tackling the biggest obstacles to providing America with clean, affordable energy, we’ll get behind your work.”

In his January 29 weekly address, Obama introduced his prescription for success, showing off his renewed capitalist spirit: "That’s how America will win the future -- by out-innovating, out-educating and out-building our competitors."

The president is trying to build momentum behind what he called America’s “Sputnik moment” during his last State of the Union address, recalling President Kennedy’s famous 1961 pledge to put a man on the Moon by the end of that decade, a pledge that fueled and eventually won the space race against the Soviet Union -- and set America on a path towards becoming the world’s leader in science and technology.

THE SINO-AMERICAN GREEN DIVIDE

But when it comes to a green future, it's not Moscow we're competing with. It's Beijing.

China has set "ambitious targets for wind, biomass and solar energy and, for the first time, took the top spot within the G-20 and globally for overall clean energy finance and investment," according to the 2010 Pew Charitable Trusts report, "Who's Winning the Clean Energy Race?"

Noting that "the United States slipped to second place," the Pew report stated, "There are reasons to be concerned about America’s competitive position in the clean energy marketplace," adding that, "In all, 10 G-20 members devoted a greater percentage of gross domestic product to clean energy than the United States in 2009."

A SUSTAINABLE LOVE NOTE TO LAWMAKERS

JFK had the Soviet Union. Obama has China. And wisely, he has linked the goal of science domination to two others -- a sustainable, low-carbon future and sustained economic growth. But he isn't just talking like his inspirational predecessor, he's putting his (i.e., our) money where his mouth is.

When Obama told scientists yesterday, “Your government will support your research,” he meant it. A White House Press Office fact sheet issued on January 25, which previews the president’s FY 2012 budget, noted increases to R&D investment as a share of GDP to the “highest levels since President Kennedy.” (Obama will give his budget to Congress on February 14 -- the perfect Valentine's Day gift to the country's legislators.)

“The President is calling for 80 percent of America’s electricity to come from clean sources by 2035, including wind, solar, nuclear, clean coal and natural gas,” according to the Press Office. “He is also putting forward measures to ensure that the U.S. is the first country to put 1 million advanced technology vehicles on its roads.”

Sounds impressive, but don't bust out that carbon-efficient champagne bottle just yet: The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office’s "Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2011 Through 2021" offers a more sobering view in regard to how all that green jazz will actually impact the nation's economy, predicting that GDP and employment figures are “likely to stay well below the economy’s potential for a number of years.”

INVEST & PROSPER...

However, we must also remember that just because you're performing below your potential doesn't necessarily mean you're doing a bad job.

The CBO's projections also show a GDP increase of 3.1 percent this year and 2.8 percent in 2012, reflecting the office’s “expectation of continued strong growth in business investment" as well as improvements in net exports, giving credence to Obama’s contention in yesterday’s address that the bipartisan tax cut passed in December gave businesses “more incentive to invest and hire.”

“All we did for these companies was provide some tax credits and financing opportunities,” Obama said. “And that’s what we want to do going forward, so that it’s profitable for American businesses to sell the discoveries made by the scientists."

“If businesses sell these discoveries -- if they start making windows and insulation and buildings that save more energy -- they will hire more workers. And that’s how Americans will prosper. That’s how we’ll win the future.”

...BUT DO IT RESPONSIBLY

The president also talked about the government's (i.e., the public's) responsibility in “supporting businesses with this kind of 21st century infrastructure and cutting-edge innovation.”

But he also made it very clear that “businesses have a responsibility, too."

“If we make America the best place to do business, businesses should make their mark in America," Obama insisted. "They should set up shop here, and hire our workers, and pay decent wages and invest in the future of this nation. That’s their obligation."

"And that’s the message I’ll be bringing to American business leaders at the Chamber of Commerce on Monday -- that government and businesses have mutual responsibilities; and that if we fulfill these obligations together, it benefits us all. Our workers will succeed. Our nation will prosper. And America will win the future in this century just like we did in the last.”

GREED VS. GREEN

It seems like a simple enough equation: The halls of academia and laboratories of scientific innovation provide the skilled labor and goods that the private sector can monetize, thus stimulating the economy, creating jobs and paving the way for a low-carbon future that will strengthen America and help mitigate the effects of anthropogenic global warming.

Sounds easy, breezy, four-cheesy, but you can bet your sustainable, eco-friendly, carbon-neutral, urine-powered ranch that the research side of the equation is generally going to be holding up their side of the bargain. The inquisitive mind of a scientist isn’t going to stop thinking about a how to make a better mousetrap, no matter how much or how little Washington opens up its coffers.

It’s the other side of the equation -- the private sector -- that is much more worrying. And that’s why the president’s tone toward that side of the room carried the whiff of admonishment, even as he hailed the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts, which the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) claims "have conferred the most benefits, by far, on the highest-income households," households in which the vast majority of the nation's business leaders charge their Blackberries.

America’s new CEO-in-Chief is quickly learning that in the boardroom, the carrot and the stick are the two most important levers that executives have in steering the corporate ship.

It also appears that Obama -- a business-world neophyte whose pre-Oval Office management skills amount really only to his early days as a community organizer in Chicago -- is learning another important lesson from the capitalist handbook: When being greedy is a factor, being green often loses out. But if we seize our "Sputnik moment," it doesn't have to be that way.

image: Wikimedia Commons

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