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. 

Whoops, Bill O’Reilly Is Now In The Spin Room by Al Sikes

Spinning, spinning, spinning—you have entered the “no spin zone” and not Bill O’Reillys.

Bill O’Reilly, Fox News’ prime-time celebrity, has made tens of millions characterizing much of the political and media establishment as operating in spin zones where up is down and down is up. O’Reilly’s show, parts journalism, audacity, and bombast, has proved a potent audience magnet. Now O’Reilly finds himself spinning away aided by a legal team and crisis manager.

O’Reilly is accused of unwelcome sexual advances. It is a fact that claims against O’Reilly and Fox have been settled for millions of dollars.

What interests me about this episode is the emerging power I wrote about in my book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow. There is a new type of leader that pushes back and has the tools to do so.

While Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the early 90s, I took on Howard Stern who had a morning radio show that reached millions and was popular with boys in their early teens. The FCC prevailed, and Stern’s vulgar routines were eventually taken to pay radio.

The FCC actions and successes against Stern indirectly invited thousands of complaints against a variety of TV and radio shows. Most of the complaints were not actionable, as the Constitution’s free speech protection is quite expansive and should be.

Most objectionable speech is underwritten by commerce. If companies don’t advertise, shows fail. If video games are not bought, the producers fail. If music is not widely purchased, then it is soon forgotten. In the case of O’Reilly’s show, tens of millions are spent each year by advertisers reaching his audience. They are now dropping his show by the dozens.

When I chaired the FCC, communications were largely hierarchical—a handful of companies controlled distribution. No more. Today some of the most successful media helps us link-up around interests, points-of-view and a range of other considerations. In short, pushing back is, if not simple, at least realistic.

The new power is in the networks, and I am not talking about broadcast and cable networks. The new power is in personal and then collective networks enabled by the Internet and a range of communication’s devices and social media aggregators like Facebook and Twitter.
In the case of Bill O’Reilly, Rolling Stone reports, “The activists who organized the hugely successful Women’s March on Washington have been advocating a boycott online, encouraging their nearly 500,000 Twitter followers to share their stories of workplace harassment using #DropOReilly. (The hashtag had garnered some 39 million impressions in just two days; according to the analytics company Keyhole.).”

Some worry that personal network bullies will emerge and that valuable content will be quashed. I do not. Boycotts are not easy. The leader has to start with an idea and a few adherents and then multiply the pressure through quantum leaps. If activist networks become the new power, then competitive ones will also emerge. O’Reilly has 1.7 million Twitter followers; plus, major advertisers are not easily bullied unless the facts stare them in the face.

The free speech guarantee is an integral force in protecting America. In part, it is now stronger because pushing back against powerful forces is possible. The evolution of the power to push back will be fascinating to watch.

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 Theater of the Absurd by Al Sikes


Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s disgraced ex-President, “now lives alone in a cell, eating $1.30 meals, washing her own tray and sleeping on a foldable mattress on the floor……..Ms. Park will have access to none of the stylists, personal chefs, plastic surgeons, skin-care specialists or physical therapists who used to regularly visit her at the Blue House.” New York Times

As I read about Ms. Park’s stark circumstance, my mind went from personal crimes to political corruption. And especially to America’s rapidly growing mortgage on her future: the national debt and associated annual budget deficit.

If politicians could be penalized for, let’s call them “fake debt promises”, by confinement and $1.30 a day meals, would America’s finances be healthier?

It will immediately be said by discerning readers that “fake promises” are to be sorted out at the ballot box. Ventilate no more, I agree with you. So then how do voters, compromised by self-interest, big numbers and short attention spans discipline candidates? Is it possible in the selfie era to live beyond the moment?

Jo Craven McGinty, a Pulitzer Prize winning data reporter/analyst noted in a Wall Street Journal article: “Big numbers befuddle us, and our lack of comprehension compromises our ability to judge information about government budgets, scientific findings, the economy and other topics that convey meaning with abstract figures, like millions, billions and trillions.” The shadow that increasingly envelopes America is in the trillions.

Every single candidate who runs for office lip syncs “we need to balance the budget.” But when the curtain goes up, the characters of the moment act out the theater of the absurd—national interest is whispered, self-interest is screamed.

The latest projection by the Congressional Budget Office reports that our national debt is on track to double in the next thirty years. It is criminal to be on trajectories that will double $20 trillion—gifted mathematicians have a hard time with this calculation.

So let me end with a semblance of what might be done. But first, what I do know is that current party leaders are incapable of bi-partisan leadership. Also there is nothing in the Trump playbook that will unify the Republican coalition on a coherent debt plan.

If you run as a Republican, you must have a whole list of taxes you intend to eliminate or reduce. So much for the revenue side.

If you are a Democrat, you must pay homage to the public employee unions, among others, who want to spend more not less. So much for the cost side.

Current generations are enriching themselves to the detriment of their children and grandchildren. It is not likely, but certain, that if this does not stop, servicing the debt will consume discretionary spending while undermining the dollar as the world’s currency. So much for our progeny.

There is now a sequel to Bowles-Simpson, the last bipartisan attempt at a debt solution. It is called the Moment of Truth Project and is largely peopled by retired politicians. Retired politicians will attempt to seize the day but they won’t win it.

Irresistible energy is all that will overcome. And, it will need to be organized by generational self-interest animated by a unifying principle that regards compromise as an essential good in a pluralistic society. I am reminded of President Kennedy’s call: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Is this just an antique thought?

Park Geun-hye went from the Blue House to jail; the absurdist conspiracy to commit fraud on the American public must not go unpunished.

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. 



Trump: Is He Teachable? By Al Sikes

Theories abound. Patients react. Markets signal. And so it goes as the debilitated Congress captured by a swirl of self-regarding interests attempts to re-engineer 20% of the economy, yet again. I am thankful for spring renewal and the promises of baseballs’ spring training.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been around for seven years. Its strengths and weaknesses have been exposed. Fix it.

President Trump has been around for sixty days or so and contrary to belief had a rather good week. Public embarrassment can teach a seventy-year-old who is said to be unteachable. If his experience in trying to co-lead, with Speaker Paul Ryan, the repeal, and replacement of the ACA didn’t teach him anything, he will not last four years.

The simplest message—build a majority, don’t count on one. The far right of the Republican Party and Trump share a Party but little else. And if Trump is going to shape bi-partisan coalitions, he will need a leader outside his current entourage.

Democrats seem gleeful; they should not be. Most importantly, having a weak President is debilitating internationally and they need to keep in mind that he is in his eighth week of two hundred and eight. Plus, their Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, seems intent on undermining the minority’s rights by trying to block the confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch, by using the filibuster. If his colleagues follow his lead, then the Senate majority will repeal the rule that gives the minority what limited power they have.

The President I worked with, George H W Bush, allocated most of his time to national security and foreign policy. The President’s authority to deal overseas is much greater than his domestic reach. Senator John McCain, no Trump fan, nevertheless gives him high marks on assembling a strong team for work abroad. Trump needs to order his White House bureaucrats to speed the nomination of the next tier of leadership at the State and Defense Departments in particular.

If Trump’s leadership as Commander-in-Chief is successful, he will be in a stronger position with the Congress. If Trump continues to live up to his opponent’s characterizations, he will be weak both at home and abroad.

Recently a friend explained that his vote for Trump was a vote for Mike Pence. If Pence ends up taking over before Trump’s term expires, our Nation is in for an especially destructive swath of history. I hope the lessons of the last week prove beneficial.

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. 

Miserable Realities and Consequences by Al Sikes

At the beginning, I am biased. I live on the Chesapeake Bay. The extent of my bias does not stop there; I am on the board of the Midshore Riverkeepers Conservancy.

Our nation’s finances remind me of where I live. The Bay, like our nation’s finances, has been used and abused. Hundreds of thousands of acres of forest land were converted to cities, suburbs, and a wide range of commercial, agricultural and residential uses. Generations of persons fortunate enough to live along a watershed that extends from Cooperstown, NY to Norfolk, VA paid too little attention to what washed into the Bay. We are now making progress on the recovery of its water quality and dependent flora and fauna.

Not content with earlier budget priorities, the Trump Administration recommends that the cleanup fund for the Bay be reduced from $73 million a year in 2016, to zero. President Trump, at the same time, put off reform in what are called entitlement programs. It is these entitlement programs, up and down the various layers of local, state and federal budgets that pillory our nation’s economic strength just as aggressive development attacked the Bay’s watershed.

Benefits to be paid in the future have with few exceptions been underestimated and underfunded. Social Security and Medicare are just the most evident national examples. This underfunded liability distorts budgets and often pinches needed programs and reforms. And as the cost of servicing the debt increases, the pain of profligacy will get worse.

Tomorrow is not unconnected from today. If we mess things up, we have to pay. When we fail to fully fund our promises, the liability becomes a dead weight on the backs of our progeny and trust in the full faith and credit of the United States.

Speaking of trust, in an especially deft phrase, Tom Friedman, columnist for the New York Times, noted that “government moves at the speed of trust.”

The trust that is being squandered by the President’s erratic use of insults, slights, fights and worse will be a dead weight in the years to come. International allies will first be wrong-footed and then will attempt to avoid meaningful collaboration.

His political competitor’s will, to their eventual damage, simply be anti-Trump as if that is all the public needs to know.

Most media will specialize in criticism while the few that are more comfortable with the President will risk their reputations. Both versions will further discredit an important institution–the media that needs repaired.

It is hard to know how this ends or whether there is any possibility that Trump will cease to manufacture and distribute weapons to those who relish the chance to use them.
Since I believe both Parties are disintegrating, I am looking for new political leadership that will offer a way out of this mess. Hopefully leadership will emerge that is honest about the nation’s finances. Most importantly we need to speak truth to power about our fiscal mess and not just the part that interests us.

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. 

A National Community is Not an Option by Al Sikes

Polarization was the implicit theme of 2016; it continues in 2017. “Two Americas” stories frequently pivot on severe cleavages in education and economics while in politics, it is Red versus Blue America. Especially divisive language by Donald Trump continues to be hailed by many voters as “telling it like it is.” Divide and conquer has become an overarching political strategy.

My Dad, who served in the Pacific Theater in WW11, rarely talked about his war experiences but he did mention a bunkmate from the Bronx. My Dad, from rural Missouri, first saw New York through his eyes; indeed he saw much of America through the stories of his comrades-in-arms.

America was unified by Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the event that sent Dad overseas. My wife and I were living in Manhattan on 9/11 and joined New Yorkers, often a fractious grouping, as we sang patriotic songs together. Unity is possible, but it shouldn’t take an attack on the homeland to create a stronger sense of national purpose.

When I grew up each day in school the class recited the Pledge of Allegiance. I was a Boy Scout and recited its creed. Both struck unifying themes. Litigation and advocacy, in recent years, have fought both.

Conversations about our nation’s capitol sometime lead to a myth–reminiscences about Republicans and Democrats working more harmoniously. Politics has never been nor will it ever be a wellspring of good feelings unless there are unifying themes that cause voters to discipline politicians. Politicians will only work together when voters demand it.

I am convinced that we often feel alienated from “the other” because we don’t know them or their communities. Rural Missourians, in 1941, had no feel for the Bronx and vice versa. And, today it is hard to conceive of unity among people of widely different backgrounds without a war. Our national motto, “Out of Many One” increasingly feels like a tag line from an old advertising campaign.

As Americans we underwrite our military academies. Each is required by law to draw from the entire United States. The cadets are not the offspring of rich alumni, but the product of hard work and a willingness to make a substantial commitment to their country.

America would more readily find common causes if service and education were more universally linked. What if every college and vocational school received financial support to implement a variation on the military academy model with each student continuing their campus service for at least twelve months after graduation?

Each student would have a menu of opportunities, like those that can now be found at serviceyear.org. Those who choose the military would enter one of the service branches after graduation while those who choose domestic or international service would find a broad menu of missions and organizations. Eager youth would be a stimulant for programs that help renew society.

I have, of course, used the G word, graduation. Financial incentives should underpin the program and students would then be encouraged to find an outlet for their skills and interests. Many would choose a vocational track; indeed vocational work should be honored. And for the college cohort that looks forward to a gap year after graduation, helping to renew America is a grand way to fill the gap. If overseas travel is tempting, the Peace Corp will accommodate.

While short essays don’t allow for much detail, I will repeat one overwhelming truth: America needs renewal and it must be a community effort.

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. 


Are We Prepared for the Latest War? By Al Sikes

Espionage! Sabotage! Theft! Unfortunately, the words have become all too familiar. After all, these are the aims of cyber war.

The questions cascade. At the end of 2013, forty million Target accounts were hacked. In 2015, four million personnel files were stolen from the United States government. In 2016, five hundred million Yahoo users’ data were illegally accessed. And, of course, more recently we are all familiar with international political hacking and accusing. As I type, it is certain that criminal and alien hackers are also tapping away as they seek to burglarize public and private structures of America.

It is often said that the United States is fortunate to be an ocean away from our enemies. No longer. Cyber war is the most important assault we face. Are we prepared to defend? Do we have a strategy for going on the offensive?

Famed U.S. Army Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing said, “The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle.” Pershing’s glories date to the beginning of the 20th Century. I wouldn’t for an instant suggest that he is wrong, but today’s enemies are often using weapons that can’t be taken out by a rifle or a missile or a drone.

Do we have the equivalent of the Marine Corp on the front lines of cyber war?

Several nights ago Lt. Gen. Guy Swan (US Army Ret.) spoke to Aspen Fellows about our readiness. He serves on the Aspen Institute Homeland Security Group, a bipartisan combination of homeland security and counterterrorism experts. When talking about competing for top talent that enabled companies like Google (now Alphabet), Apple, Amazon and others, his confident voice receded.

Recruiting and retaining skilled computer specialists is very difficult. I know the problem first hand. I am sure that military and civilian agencies seek to recruit the best, but the competition is fierce and hierarchal structures are unattractive. A Fortune article noted: “One of the things that tech companies do really, really well – they don’t rely a whole lot on hierarchy.” Washington’s institutions marinate in hierarchy.

In February 2016, the United States Government sued Apple to require them to let the FBI access the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. Our top law enforcement agency could not get into a consumer device just as the government’s Office of Personnel Management couldn’t protect personnel records.

The lawsuit against Apple was quietly dropped when a technology provided by Cellebrite, an Israeli subsidiary of a Japanese company, Sun Corporation, facilitated access. Apple does not show up on a list of technology contractors that might protect government sources.

And when you look at the government’s primary technology contractors you find defense firms like Lockheed-Martin, Raytheon, Boeing and General Dynamics leading the list. The lineup does not include America’s top five cloud computing service providers, Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, Alphabet, and Salesforce.

A report released this month by Bay Area think-tank Lincoln Labs outlined the obstacles facing new companies and their products, often our leading source of innovation. Derek Khanna, one of the report’s four authors, says that most government contracts are awarded to firmly entrenched, old-line companies based on the fact that they employ large portions of the “consulting class.”

America is at risk, and its central government faces powerful institutional and cultural headwinds.

In wars past, Americans have been pressed into action. In the hot wars of WWI, WWII, Korean and Vietnamese, the nation had a draft. Combatants were secured, trained, and equipped with the tools of combat. Today, those gifted in the use of technology, are not drafted, and government recruiters are handicapped.

Ten post-9/11 veterans were elected to Congress in 2016; six are Republicans and four Democrats. Each knows the threats we face first hand. A bi-partisan caucus should press for a thorough modernization of our cyber war preparedness. The recruitment and retention of Artificial Intelligence (AI) talent should be a top priority. AI programs can discern thievery and quickly change the locks. We clearly need better locks.

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. 

Visuals Matter, Especially When They are Jarring by Al Sikes

Increasingly visuals matter; words not as much. Tone though is important; it is an important emotional signal. But, since all I have is words, a word on each.

Quick polling on the reaction to President Trump’s speech to Congress and the country underscored the importance of tone. Fifty-seven percent according to a CNN poll had a very favorable reaction to the speech. This boost was not due to the policy content of his address.

Trump, the day before the speech, had graded himself on his first five weeks. His grades: A+ on effort, A on accomplishments, C to C+ on messaging. Given that too often his voice has been loud, his words harsh, and his feelings raw and indignant, I would give him a D- on messaging. Trump had won the biggest job in the country, but was often acting like a jerk.

Screen Shot 2017-03-02 at 9.25.55 AMHopefully the tonal pivot on Tuesday night is indicative of what Americans can expect. Hopefully the positive feedback Trump received will have the impact of a customer survey at Trump Towers. Trump hotels presumably feature a polite service staff and the President is in a service job. The next formal vote on his service is 22 months away and there will be hundreds of polls along the way.

Words? I thought his outreach at the very outset, recognizing Black History Month, was important. Indeed, much of his address was about those who economically or culturally have been left behind. While policy differences do not get resolved by speeches, the President made a number of nods in the right direction. So while most pundits recalled his immigration message and thought little had changed on the content front, I disagree. My opinion, he was pivoting toward the second stage in his deal negotiations with several applause lines that forced Democrats to stand up and clap. At the same time, many fiscal conservatives in the Republican Party stood only because of peer pressure. Trump joins a long line of politicians that promise benefits without sacrifice.

Everybody left, right and center agreed on one thing – the visual impact of Carryn Owens was riveting. On January 29th, she lost her husband, Ryan, while he was protecting America. On March 1, the world watched her; with tears streaming down her face she looked toward heaven repeating, “I love you.”

Next to Mrs. Owens, in an impossibly awkward position, was the President’s daughter, Ivanka. Mrs. Owens was in a simple black dress. Ivanka looked as if she had just stepped from the Oscar stage. The visual, unintentionally, underscored America’s problem.

There are two Americas and where wealth is concentrated few serve in the nation’s military services. And in most of the country, few can afford more than a simple black dress and often that must be purchased on credit.

America’s first families have often been wealthy. Our new first family is both characteristic and uncharacteristic – I suspect that only the Kennedy family could have comfortably shared similar zip codes.

Candidate Trump reached voters in zip codes that were unfamiliar to him with savvy and divisive rhetoric; he won. Now, if he is to actually go from style to substance and on to accomplishment, he will have to begin to unify disparate elements. His speech was a beginning, but only a beginning.

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.