Road Trips in America by Al Sikes

“I’m 32, Mr. Dunn, and I’m here celebrating the fact that I spent another year scraping dishes and waitressing which is what I have been doing since 13……..other truth is, my brother’s in prison, my sister cheats on welfare by pretending one of her babies is still alive, my daddy’s dead, and my momma weighs 312 lbs. If I was thinking straight, I’d go back home, find a used trailer, buy a deep fryer and some Oreos. Problem is, this is the only thing I ever felt good doing. If I’m too old for this, then I got nothing. That enough truth to suit you?” Maggie Fitzgerald, Million Dollar Baby

Few movie scenes remain vivid in my mind. But when Maggie Fitzgerald, in a stunning portrayal by Hillary Swank, faced off with Frankie Dunn the boxing manager, played by Clint Eastwood, the imprint endured. So when I read that the founder of Facebook and multiple billionaire Mark Zuckerberg had taken a road trip to better understand America, the scene flashed back.

As Maggie’s plaintive dialogue reveals, she is a waitress who had grown up in a hard-scrabble family. She was also a pretty good boxer who had come to Frankie Dunn’s gymnasium to ask him to manage her career.

Eastwood’s Frankie Dunn was an edgy traditionalist who didn’t see the boxing ring as a fit place for a woman.

Frankie Dunn didn’t understand Maggie Fitzgerald and Mark Zuckerberg will need more than a road trip to understand America.

Zuckerberg finished high school at Phillips Exeter Academy and college at Harvard. He is said to be the fifth richest man in the world. He is, of course, the founder of Facebook and a road trip will not provide a real connection to a world he has never occupied.

My road trip began in 1986 when I came to Washington and continued in 1993 when my wife and I moved to Manhattan. Decreasingly, I found, did I work or play with people who shared my background. In some ways when I left my home state, Missouri, I left a public world and entered a private one.

Most of my new peers and associates attended private elementary and secondary schools and colleges. I was a public school guy in a private school world.

Age invites reflection. Having spent the backend of my career in the digital industry, my reflections are in part informed by that fact. And the fact is that the digital age rewards, and often in outsized ways, those who were shaped from an early age to complete algorithmically.

David Brooks wrote a column recently in which he talked about the pediacrats: “It’s the pediacracy, stupid. Over the past few decades, upper-middle-class Americans have embraced behavior codes that put cultivating successful children at the center of life. As soon as they get money, they turn it into investments in their kids.”

Commenting on a book in the same column, “The Sum of Small Things,” by Elizabeth Currid- Halkett, Brooks notes, “To feel at home in opportunity-rich areas, you’ve got to understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food, truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality.”

My East Coast field trip, or to be more honest, residency, brought me fully into this world. I am from time to time still disoriented, but never more so than when I puzzle about what might be done to bring America together again.

I believe it is safe to say that most coastal, upper-middle-class residents were shocked by the election of Donald Trump. I was surprised, but not shocked, having had the good fortune of experiencing much of America’s diversity.

When we chose to end national service, we unwittingly chose to end meaningful assimilation. Most, unfortunately, we turned characterization over to character actors directed by often condescending film directors. Empathy was not possible.

Zuckerberg is a poster boy for disruption and the enormous economic leverage enjoyed by the tech elite. He was private school all the way. He enjoys an elite intellect and voracious ambition. Most Americans are not on the road to high technology riches or even the rewards that come to those in the upper echelons of value-added work.

The Hillary Swank character was willing to do what was necessary regardless of where her work landed her on the social ladder. Likewise, many who voted for President Trump were willing to do what they thought necessary to shake up the political world.

Movie-goers know how Million Dollar Baby ended.

It is impossible to know how this wrenching chapter in America’s political life will end. But, let me hazard a guess.

Trump will ultimately fail. He does not know either America or political leadership. It is not enough to exploit anger; successful Presidents must also understand America’s generous nature and how to tap its energy. And, I am not talking about larger budgets, but the respect we want and extend to others.

I also do not believe the next President will come from the corporate world. Those who know America best have served in its armed forces, the only popular institution. I believe Americans will once again turn for leadership to those who know America best.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Government in a Google Box by Al Sikes

Google succeeded because it masked complexity in a simple search box and quickly presented results. Brief history: Google was not the first to provide Web search, but its competitors frequently offered up confusing interfaces.

Several weeks ago I was drawn into complexity — dealing with a government agency. My wife and I received our first Global Entry pass after an interview at the Philadelphia airport in 2012.

The passes must be renewed this year.

My wife’s request for renewal was approved, but mine was conditioned on coming in for another interview and fingerprinting. I decided to ask why.

First I went to the Global Entry website and used their “contact us” feature and seven days later got a non-answer. So I then called the phone number, listened and responded to a number of prompts and then after 20 minutes of music got a person. His best answer: “You have a 50/50 chance of an unconditional renewal.” As my wife’s application was being approved, mine, by default, was being conditioned.

In all, and not counting the time spent by Marty (my wife) in filling out the initial paperwork, I probably had two hours invested along with no small amount of frustration. But then I told myself, this is nothing compared to the stories you read about people who can’t get answers to
much more important questions.

I decided to test the government response against a Google search. I typed in Global Entry renewal. Within a fraction of a second, the top two responses appeared. The first in order directed me to the government agency site and to a FAQ function. When clicked on, the FAQ access link said the database was down.

I then went to the second in order, One Mile at a Time, and was greeted by a fellow named Ben Schlappig, who states he is “obsessed with aviation, travel, and more specifically, using airline miles and credit card points to elevate the travel experience.” I quickly found out from Schlappig, whose nickname is Lucky, what I had spent two hours to find out from the government.

I have no idea how many government employees and contractors are involved in building and maintaining websites. Undoubtedly the answer is a lot. Then there are those who have to answer phone calls with barely more than a script. I suggest the various levels of government be put into a Google box.

While I am not that big on supplying more revenue to Google (or perhaps Bing), to me, we who pay and then get frustrated should demand that our enormous and complex government agencies become, in the jargon of the day, transparent, and easily so. This is especially true for agencies that field consumer inquiries.

Each day there are, I suspect, millions who need to ask questions about healthcare, taxes, military service benefits, and the like. They should be served up something other than unmasked complexity or telephone queues.

Of course, today the news is filled with high policy. How should healthcare risk be funded?

How should tax relief for one category of taxpayers be offset by increased rates or reduced deductions by some other group of taxpayers? Undoubtedly these are important questions, although seemingly our leaders are not able to answer them.

Maybe our leaders need to spend more time making law work, not just debating how to change it. They also need to understand and reflect on one simple point: I can’t think of anybody that frustrates me who I trust to serve more time making law work, not just debating how to change it. They also need to understand and reflect on one simple point: I can’t think of anybody that frustrates me who I trust to serve me.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

The New Oligopoly by Al Sikes

It is hard for those who have been in the forefront to imagine becoming increasingly irrelevant. But, a statistical glance across a variety of media measurements show that is exactly what is happening. Market share, audience statistics, gross revenues, net profit, time spent with devices of one sort or another all tell a story of disruptive loss. The new media has been rapidly miniaturizing traditional ones.

I arrived in Washington in 1986 — a generation ago. My first job was heading the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). At the time, NTIA was preoccupied with the consequences of the 1984 breakup of AT&T.

AT&T had largely monopolized telecommunications, and by 1986 it had, under Consent Decree provisions, divested the local phone companies. Its book value declined by 70%. While the aftermath of the breakup was often disruptive to consumers, it nonetheless led to extraordinary new opportunities for telecommunications entrepreneurs to provide new hardware and services. And provide they did.

Today the most consequential commercial power is in the data business. Data oligopolists enjoy enormous advantages of customer knowledge, scale, and access. This advantage grows daily.

While Washington has been obsessed with “Net Neutrality,” the power of Amazon, Alphabet (Google’s parent company) and Facebook, in particular, the beneficiaries of the so-called neutrality policy, has grown exponentially. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should devote some time to understanding what this means, and I would suggest reviewing recent rulings from the European Commission regarding the power of data to not just offer new services, but to displace media and squeeze out competition.

If I were a young entrepreneur, my concern would be the data oligopolists and the leverage they enjoy. If I could parachute into the FCC today, I would initiate a competition policy process aimed at a more open data structure. I would not be interested in halting innovation within Amazon, Alphabet, and Facebook, but would want their gains to come from creativity, not raw data and access power.

The data oligopolists know our names, computer identification numbers, search interest, buying habits and much more. They know more about us than most of our immediate family members. They enjoy an enormous advantage in shaping, marketing and selling their services. And their advantage cannot be easily regulated or broken up by antitrust agencies.

Disruption arrives with many faces. But, and this one fact is indisputable, the creative media community—publishers, producers, recording artists, journalists and the like, are quickly becoming miniaturized by the digital revolution and in time, consumers will find the oligopolists less and less benign.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Renew Independence: Displace Cynicism by Al Sikes

In a recent column, I wrote (hoped) that the time is ripe for a new political movement. I cited the success of En Marche! in France. En Marche! did not exist before 2016, yet led by Emmanuel Macron, swept recent elections for President and the Parliament.

The response to the column was quick and animated. Most encouragingly, people said they had sent the column to friends, and one said it would be sent on to Michael Bloomberg (more on that later.)

It is, of course, easy to call for change. It is more difficult to clothe the idea.

Today America’s principal parties have scripts and bases and the latter anchor them to the former. It is as if the search for knowledge has died. America’s political class and especially the leaders of its two protected parties have failed. They have occupied positions of responsibility and power, but have forgotten the first. They have failed to rise above their differences.

America needs an open-minded — indeed curious party with leaders who are willing to embrace civic research and development — beginnings, successes, failures, and new beginnings.

Scientists, engineers, and leading-edge business leaders awaken each day to the promises and risks of new and often disruptive technology. Many of the companies that top a list of the world’s largest (capital value) didn’t exist or were quite small a generation ago. And the scientific breakthroughs in medicine, data analysis and communications products and services are staggering.

In the decades that followed American astronauts landing on the moon, it was often said, “If we can land a man on the moon we can cure” (fill in the blank). Rocketing to the moon, impressive as that was, did not prepare the nation to more insightfully deal with human needs. Conversely, this generation’s technologies provide deep insights into human behavior and how real needs can best be met.

Yet, politicians awaken in a tactical world. Each day they spend most of their energies protecting their jobs.

A curious party, one led by the principle that generational improvements are possible, will necessarily be a federalist one. Constitutionally, America is a nation of state and local governments. It is often said that the States are our laboratories. They should be given more power and when necessary economic incentives to improve services that the private sector cannot provide. Washington should be attentive, not predominate in most domestic matters.

Today the central government’s template for dealing with domestic needs is to try to “boil the ocean.” This, of course, doesn’t work, but the programs become entrenched, and outcomes matter less and less as the beneficiaries ear-mark their political giving and advocacy.

Americans are generous — they answer needs. Tens of billions are spent annually on an extraordinary range of not-for-profits. But, and this is the pivotal difference, if a worthwhile mission is unable to show mission-related success, it will fail for lack of support. Programs in Washington persist, regardless of results.

New political leadership should respect America’s diversity. When Washington, through the Congress or Supreme Court becomes Culture-Maker-In-Chief, positions harden and polarization becomes more intense. While there are basic freedoms America’s central government must enforce, a significant measure of cultural expression should be left to the States.

And this brings me around to New York’s former Mayor, Michael Bloomberg. I lived in Manhattan during the first part of his administration and watched with admiration as he encouraged innovation in public schools as teacher’s unions fought his every move.

Mayor Bloomberg would be an excellent third party leader. He has certainly considered beginning a new movement and his pattern of business and government leadership point to curiosity and innovation. And, importantly, he is experienced. While he has recently declined any interest in running for office again, he should play at least an enabling role.

Also, a new political movement must be led by a tenacious person who is not easily intimidated. An innovation movement will quickly breach the walls of entrenched interests.

Finally and most importantly, this must be a citizen movement — a countervailing force to displace cynicism with some measure of hope. America’s health requires an engaged citizenry, and one will only exist when candidates for office are not programmed by entrenched interests. And believe me, a viable third Party would shake the protected parties very foundation.

In my lifetime, there has never been a better opportunity to start a third party with real staying power. But, if such a movement is to succeed, it will require real, not feigned leadership.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

 

Shouting Across the Atlantic: Is There a Leader Out There? By Al Sikes

Politicians on the winning side of elections inevitably quip: “elections matter.” And so they do, but let me be more pointed.

The most important elections in the last twelve months, with apologies to the British, occurred in America and France.

Americans, intensely frustrated, elected an entirely unconventional candidate. The opposition Party has chosen a path of nullification—Democrats want to void the election any way they can. Poor strategy for their Country and Party.

In our Revolutionary War, America’s most important ally was France. Today the French, who recently elected a new president, are shouting at us across the Atlantic. In France, the most significant conventional Parties (Socialists, Republicans) and the populist one, The National Front, lost. The winner, En Marche!.

Jean-Michel Frederic Macron’s Party, En Marche!, didn’t exist until April of 2016, yet, he was elected President. Macron’s newly emerged Party has just won an overwhelming majority in parliamentary elections. Macron left the Socialist party, and it barely retains a presence in the French parliament.

Macron defeated the right and left and the populist, Marine Le Pen. He called for a “democratic revolution” and has advocated “a collective solidarity.” Macron led a citizen movement.

Is a citizen movement possible in United States politics? Can enough talent and energy be organized to overcome the structural obstacles that protect the Republican and Democrat parties? They certainly no longer merit protection.

If a true citizen movement is possible, the central political question must be re-framed. If the core inquiry is which ideological script should prevail, the energy is with the ideologues. But, as poll after poll confirms, a majority of voters are eager for leaders who are willing to lead from the center.

Leading from the center requires thinking. It requires leaders who look for government intervention or restraint informed by realities. If you listen to left and right politicians today, you quickly realize they are mostly unmoored from thinking as they recite their talking points.

I am not talking about a centrism that splits the difference. What we need are centrist leaders who are acutely aware of what has worked or failed in our federal system. We need leaders who can utilize the extraordinary power of 21st Century technology to achieve efficiencies and successes. We need leaders who can capitalize on America’s diversity rather than using it to divide and conquer.

The latest Gallup political survey summary shows that 42% of voters identify as Independents. In 2014 and 2015 polling, Gallup noted that the most frequent cited reason for being an independent was “frustration with party gridlock in the federal government.”

The election of President Trump was telling. He was certainly not the choice of the right. And it is increasingly clear that the Republican Party is struggling to become a governing party as the hard right pursues its view of “perfection” at the expense of leadership.

On the left, the offer is a new list of free services all to be paid for by a “tax on the wealthy” and debt. At present, the United States is only able to finance existing private and public credit appetites because of our international monetary strength. This strength is not ordained in the natural order of things, and if we do not pivot, the central government balance sheet will look like Illinois.

Vladimir Putin, whose nationalistic appeal protects him from a poor Russian economy, doesn’t need to intervene in our elections. We are in the midst of self-destruction.

There is literally a wall of laws that protect the major parties and incumbents will not, as President Reagan once demanded in Berlin, “tear down that wall.” If a centrist coalition is to succeed, work needs to begin immediately, and the movement should organize for the 2020 presidential election. The critical mass of support needed will come from Independents and success in the 2020 election should quickly be followed by organizing at the State and Local levels.

What is needed now is a farsighted leader who will devote himself or herself to a historic cause. It will be hard work, but saving the Republic will never be easy.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Real Men and Father’s Day by Al Sikes

“You feel like superman”, the young addict says. The Economist
“Does God exist?” “Not yet,” Question and answer in panel discussion on transhumanism.
“For the prostitute reduces you to a loaf of bread.” Proverbs 6:26

Let me briefly serve as a bridge, an intergenerational one.

My Dad, in acute recognition of my needs, was unhesitating. He insisted that nothing good in the life of a teenager happened after midnight—thus a curfew. It made no difference that other parents did not impose one—he seemed unbothered by peer pressure. Much to my discomfort.

Dad insisted that I needed to understand the options of life—my summers were spent working in a grain elevator. When just out of college, I announced an intent to get married; he was apoplectic, and said: “you can’t afford a wife.” Fortunately for me, my wife, Marty, worked while I went to law school.

There was nobody around to write down Dad’s insistent insights. Had he been a direct descendent of King Solomon, the world would have received a 20th Century update of Proverbs.

My Dad would have told the young addict that Superman is a fantasy, that if you are searching for transcendence go to church.

And to the transhumanist searching for perpetual life, he would have suggested spiritual counsel, not chemicals.

To finish the bridge, let me retreat to King Solomon’s version of Proverbs, the one that is blessed by the Bible. The King didn’t lack a keen insight or a sense of humor.

Culturally, our time is devoted to ascendance. Or, as the dictionaries report: “a position of dominance.” My Dad, not inclined to deal in the abstract, would have paired the word with fool. He knew, and probably most humans know, that dominance is fleeting. When we feel dominant, something else is likely to be dominating us.

My faith is inspired by a horrific death on a crucifixion cross—its form–simple and wooden. The narrative surrounding this piece of wood promises transcendence through love and humility.

Regardless of which faith story we find compelling, none of them suggest material wealth or dominance as the pathways to transcendence.

Reflecting on America, it needs a culture that pushes us beyond self. The vulnerable need more than jails and yet another educational initiative that explains for the millionth time what every sentient human knows: drugs are harmful. Millions of people seem to have yielded to nihilism, believing that existence is pointless or alternatively, too heavy a burden to carry. Pharmacological escape and its risks do not weigh heavily on their minds.

America needs insistence voices informed by an overarching morality. My Dad’s rules carried the bite of right or wrong. Simply stated, we (all of us) need to look beyond ourselves. Not to the pop psychology of victimhood. Nor to the ceaseless marketing messages that compare our lives with some glorious alternative.

Today volumes are written about sources of moral principles and their legitimacy. Likewise, volumes are written about how our weaknesses often eclipse our internal powers of discipline. At some point in this narrative stream, right or wrong became a depreciating asset.

Parents, schools, churches, and Synagogues need to start young. They need to recapture the insistence I experienced as a teenager. And while the message needs to be motivated by love, the words need authority, a 21st Century Solomon who understands the earlier one.

Retreating to the last century, I recall a movie with an intergenerational story.

A 1963 movie, Hud, starring Paul Newman, Patricia O’Neal, and Melvyn Douglas, was set on a cattle ranch in Texas that was just hanging on when it was hit by an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease.

The movie pitted a hard drinking, unprincipled son, Hud, (played by Paul Newman) against his father, Homer (played by Melvyn Douglas), who was the patriarch owner of the ranch. The two men often argued in front of an impressionable and idealistic young man, Lon (played by Brandon de Wilde), who was grandson to Homer and nephew to Hud.

In one memorable scene, Homer said to Lon after a furious argument with Hud: “Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire….You’re just going to have to make up your own mind one day about what’s right and wrong.”

Today the word “men” tends to be loaded; but as Fathers Day is only days away, I recall my father as a real man.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Hell No! Resistance Movements and Trump by Al Sikes

The Polish Resistance (post-WWII), Solidarity, took on the Soviet-dominated government of Poland and won. During WWII the French resistance, led by Charles de Gaulle, battled the Vichy government which collaborated with the Nazis. After the war, De Gaulle formed and led France’s Fifth Republic. History is filled with heroic resistance efforts, often movements of life or death.

So now we come to the American resistance movement circa 2017, against all things Trump. I have several thoughts.

President Trump was elected. All who oppose him, left, right and center needs to understand the underlying human dynamics of the 2016 election and demonstrate what they have learned in the 2018 elections. Also, resistance movements feed on suppression; a singular focus and intense loyalty develop as its members seek to avoid being crushed by the secret police. In our hemisphere heroism is now in the streets in Venezuela.

In America, we enjoy a form of institutional resistance to overreach. America has very rocky soil when it comes to sowing the seeds of authoritarianism. The Courts have pushed back against Trump orders. The Congress is tied in knots as Trump is quick to thunder expectations but incapable of making a public case for legislative change—Tweets won’t do it.

As the resistance movement was outlined in a Rolling Stone article, it is entirely too institutional; its agenda is an amalgamation of support group policies, many whose causes helped lead to Trump’s victory. It also includes Evan McMullin who, as a conservative, ran an independent campaign for President. Recently it became even more mainstream as Hillary Clinton announced her intention to help fund it.

In the President’s chosen Party, it is now becoming evident that he, rather than suppressing wayward elements, has freed them. There is now an outspoken moderate movement. The primaries of 2016 made it clear that hard-edged conservative orthodoxy was not what the Republican voters wanted.

On the left, it is hard to believe that somebody to the left of Hillary Clinton could have defeated Trump. Unfortunately, Ms. Clinton’s flaws as a candidate serve a narrative that her loss was not determined by policy. And the Russian intervention serves those who avert their eyes when it comes to unpopular government prescriptions.

One of the great ironies of the 21st Century is that great businesses are being built on an increasingly precise understanding of human behavior, while political parties increasingly wallow in opinions. Amazon, Google, and Facebook, to name the headliners, know how we behave and now sit atop capital markets worldwide. Frighteningly, they have turned knowledge about us into money machines.

Perversely, America has elected its first businessman, and he too wallows in opinions, often ones based on false assumptions. At the Oscars they ask for the “envelope please;” Trump needs to ask for the data.

It is, of course, plausible to conclude that a resistance built on Never-Trump across the ideological spectrum will not harm the country. An oft repeated refrain is that the country is safer when Congress is in recess.

But, we all better hope that the resistance does not so weaken the President that foreign provocations become more likely and that Trump, failing domestically, asserts himself abroad. My advice: take on the President’s policies if you can identify them. All this focus on Trump the personality is a restatement of the obvious.

I would suggest that the Never-Trump movement be unlike the President—discerning.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Leaders and the Physics of Destruction by Al Sikes

In business there are many versions of the virtuous circle. Amazon, for example, gains customer insights on a real-time basis and then puts it to use in acquiring, pricing, selling and distributing inventory. Each element of its business opens a window on improving the other elements.

Virtuous circles in public affairs turn on success or at least its appearance. When a public figure initiates both an effective and popular move, he/she stands a better chance of being given the benefit of the doubt on future ones. Of course, performance in politics is enhanced when there are attractive personal attributes. Presidents Kennedy, Reagan and Obama in my lifetime enjoyed halo effects because of intangible assets.

But, when some combination of tangibles and intangibles cause a loss of popularity, a negative circle of consequences develops and is very difficult to reverse. Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Carter, in particular, were defeated by the physics of destruction, an irreversible momentum. President Trump has joined them and at a very unfortunate time for the nation—issues press, division intensifies, and Trump is only in his fourth month.

I was raised to respect Presidents. They were elected; democracy in action. And, they were the most meaningful expression of our nation’s day to day strength or weakness. We didn’t have to agree with everything our President did, but we had to always keep in mind that if he was weak our collective strength was hurt—weak President, weakened nation.

I didn’t vote for the President but have tried to keep my essays dispassionate–time weighed on me, Trump had just begun.

Trump deserves much of his unpopularity. He began his Presidency as if he had spent a lifetime preparing for the burdens. The reality is that he is an amateur—plenty of bluster but little else. Most unfortunately, he has let down his supporters who looked at all of the Republican and Democrat regulars and judged them unacceptable.

Rarely does a news cycle end without Trump attacking the media. The media, an imperfect bunch to be sure, is nonetheless the connectivity between the governed and its leaders. President Reagan’s sparring with Sam Donaldson should be studied. Donaldson’s critical coverage was masterfully disarmed by Reagan. Attempting to destroy the media is destructive on both a personal and collective level.

In my view Trump has made some good choices in assembling his national security and foreign policy team, but then he gets out ahead of them. Surely he learned in running a hotel company that he needed to avoid undermining his managers. It makes no sense.

The problem is he seems incapable of understanding his problems. He seeks out enablers. When you are President this is the single most egregious mistake. Being a successful president is a really difficult job and enablers, and let me add apologists, are inevitably ill-informed and often obsequious.

So where does the nation go from here? It now seems clear that Trump will not become a controlled and stable leader in a position for which he received no preparation. I hope to be surprised.

We have been here before. President Richard Nixon resigned to forestall impeachment. President Bill Clinton was impeached but not convicted. Both sagas were long, drawn-out and debilitating.

When a President is failing, America’s most important institutions and their leaders must recalibrate their roles. They will need to fill vacuums. They will need to cushion chaos. They will need to provide a measure of strength and stability.

The loyal opposition should be measured and careful with their prerogatives. The Republican leadership should lower the decibels of partisanship and be prepared to speak truth to power.

The Fourth Estate has a particularly vital role to play. The knives are out and separating fact from fiction requires capable journalists who go well beyond a crossfire version of the news.
Finally, President Trump has appointed some capable people to head the Departments of State, Defense and Treasury. Their exercise of power and advice to the President will be important.

Let me close with repetition. I hope I am wrong. America needs encouragement—proponents and opponents alike. The appointment of Judge Merrick Garland or a similarly well-regarded FBI head would be a big step in the right direction.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

What a Mess; At Least Two Rebuilds Are Necessary by Al Sikes

What a mess! What a sad testimony on American government in the 21st Century.

The Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, is broken, both structurally and financially. Now the Republicans, who complained bitterly about being shut out by the ruling Democrats in the first round, are reciprocating. Lined up along the Potomac, the Democrats are using artillery, while the Republicans are relying on superior numbers. This is not difficult to understand at the Pentagon level, but at a time when most people have a historically low opinion of the Congress, it is an especially damaging and high-risk strategy.

The stakes in this war are quite high—we are talking about twenty percent of the economy, and I suspect over half of the dramas that play out in most families. Affordable, accessible and quality health care is not an inconsequential matter.

The Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in 2010—many believe on the voter’s distaste for Obamacare. They then staged dozens of repeal votes even though there was zero chance that President Obama would sign such a law. Plus, in the course of this charade, an alternative plan was not proposed. Unfortunately, voters often go along with politics of destruction regardless of which side is lobbing grenades.

Obamacare became law in March of 2010. The roll-out was marred by two overarching problems. The initial sign-up was a disaster, and the President promised voters that if they liked their health insurance, they could keep it and likewise their doctor. For many, this turned out not to be true.

If the plan had been a business product, it would have been quickly pulled from the market and re-tooled. Seven years later the re-tooling is taking place and, if new law results, it will be called Trumpcare.

President Trump, who made a big deal of his business acumen, must now deliver or be forever branded with a failure. A shard of light glinted briefly when Trump admitted that re-tooling the health care law was more complicated than he thought. He needs to revisit this fact and constantly remind himself that health care for many is a matter of life or death.

Obamacare underscored the difficulty in shifting risk. If everybody with a pre-existing illness is to be guaranteed affordable insurance an enormous payment will need to be made by either healthier insureds or taxpayers or both. But if risk shifting is the biggest issue, keep in mind that Obamacare was a two thousand page bill which now confronts lawmakers with a mish-mash of vested interests otherwise called alligators in the Washington swamp.

Restraint will not allow me to go much further into detail but let me make two radical suggestions.

First, and most importantly, Trump or members of the Republican majority who can actually lead should insist on a bi-partisan result. Trump, who tends to run toward controversy, should lead the effort as the legislative leaders will need cover. Since the end result will necessarily be right of center, the more moderate Democrats should be given prominent roles in the drafting of a new law. The Congress needs to own the law; Americans should not be whipsawed every voting cycle. Constant political wars have damaged representative government and undermine our health care industry.

Second, Washington needs to learn from Google and Apple. Both companies provide compelling products with intuitive consumer interfaces. The ease of use masks enormous underlying complication. A re-tooled health care program needs to do the same.

A final word to Trump. The likelihood of your namesake law being workable and relatively popular if crafted by hyper-partisans, under the constraints of budget reconciliation rules, is less than zero. A bi-partisan and fully public legislative process will at least give the public a sense that their representatives take their jobs seriously.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Why Wait for Hundred Days When Ninety Will Do? By Al Sikes

Arbitrary, for sure, but a measure nonetheless—the first one hundred days. How has Trump done? I am getting out ahead of the story as his hundredth day will be April 29th.

Bear with me briefly, as I just attached a wider angle lens.

Turkey just had an election, narrowly and controversially approving constitutional changes that give its President much more power. The changes were pushed by Recep Erdogan, the current President, who was almost ousted in a coup several months ago. The changes were supported by only 51% of voters and the Erdogan government censored much of the opposition campaign.

America doesn’t do coups nor censor opposition parties. And it is almost impossible to change the constitution, which is one reason our fights over who sits on the Supreme Court are so hard fought. So as we assess the President, we should also grade ourselves and our political institutions. Presidents do not win an election or govern in a vacuum.

First, Trump. He would want to be first; nothing seems to move without a Trump context. Too bad.

At the fifty day mark, I would have given Trump an F, today a C minus. He is beginning to have a better feel for the job and whose advice is sound. Contrary to hard core opponents, he seems capable of learning. Plus, he has pivoted more of his attention to international initiatives where the President has more discretion, and his staff and cabinet support is better. Plus, he needed at least the appearance of short-term successes before going back to the Congress on domestic issues. And believe me, in international affairs, final judgments on short-term actions are long in coming.

The Congress, facing deadlines on financial affairs, gets an incomplete. The Congress is always difficult to lead and a hundred day assessment would be unduly arbitrary. I should point out, however, that the Senate Minority Leader, Democrat Chuck Schumer, gave the Republicans a gift in forcing them to rescind minority rights to achieve confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch. The Republican majority in order to pass any test must now be more purposeful and cohesive.

If I were grading the majority in the House of Representatives, they would get an F. Theresa May, Britain’s Prime Minister just called a snap election for members of Parliament. Too bad that political tool cannot be used here.

The news media would get the same grade as Trump, a C-minus. In the last week, it has been more likely to cover policy; a good thing. It is still, however, too consumed with Trump as a personality, outlier, and entertainer. Hopefully, certain media will quit spilling ink by the barrel on him and indirectly his supporters. It does them no credit and fertilizes his “fake news” assaults. Hopefully, Trump will someday acknowledge, indeed appreciate, that the media does not exist to make his life easier and shouldn’t. Fat chance.

The free speech guarantee in our Constitution is sacred. The news media should work every day to live up to its corresponding obligations. When the coverage of any person or event is predictable, the publication is not serving the public interest. There is too much predictability in the coverage of Trump.

The political parties. Owls can pivot their head 270 degrees. They are said to be wise. At this moment America suffers from stiff necks that can barely pivot from their intenseness as they double down on the orthodoxies of their bases that led to their rejection last year. Lacking internal knowledge on what turnaround strategies might be in the works, I’ll be charitable and give each a D.

Let me close by commenting briefly on us—those who support candidates and vote in elections. It is said that we get the government we deserve. In the 21st Century, this is not necessarily true.

United States politics are now gerrymandered, underwritten by concentrations of wealth, distorted by entertainment posing as news and given scant attention by a distracted culture. But, signs of life are encouraging. Members of Congress and especially Republicans are being tested at town hall meetings; in a republic that is a good thing. So, to the public that is fighting stiff head winds, I would give a B minus.

America needs renewal. Are there any reformers who can also lead? If so, it is not too early to prepare for 2020 when the hard left and right need to be defeated by hard realities.

******************

Writing, for me, is mostly enjoyable and particularly when inspiration happens. Certainly, the Trump phenomenon has provided plenty. But, having a weekly deadline (mostly self-imposed) has sometimes turned pleasure into work. So, with thanks to the Editors with whom I work, my column will, in the future, be stirred by particular interests, not the calendar.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.