Steven Pearlstein: A Jobs program for a floundering president

It’s true — President Obama needs to focus on jobs. But not the kind of jobs you are probably thinking of.

I’m talking about Steve Jobs, another young leader who rose fast, hit a wall and came crashing down to reality but somehow managed to muster the brilliance and strength of character to stage the greatest comeback in corporate history.

The company Jobs launched in 1976 and that kicked him out in 1985 was maybe weeks away from bankruptcy when it brought him back in 1996. Today, Apple vies daily with ExxonMobil to be the most valuable company in the world. Jobs managed not only to revolutionize the world of computing, but telephones, music and animation as well. In the process, he turned himself into a cult hero and his company into a symbol of what American workers and American business and the American economy can achieve.

For brand loyalty, brand equity, no company tops Apple and no leader tops Steve Jobs. And what, after all, is successful politics if not brand loyalty and brand equity?

So, what advice might Jobs give the struggling politician?

A good place to start is Jobs’s commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005: “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice,” Jobs told the graduates. “Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

Jobs is famous for having ignored consumer research, ignored critics, ignored the doubters who said something couldn’t get done.

“Jobs doesn’t get hung up on the art of the possible,” explains Steven Levy, a columnist at Wired magazine and author of a biography of Jobs, “Insanely Great.” “He figures out what should be done or how it should work and he keeps at it until he brings the world along. The reason Apple has succeeded is because it doesn’t start with compromise, doesn’t start with the idea that there are constraints.”

The implication for Obama: Stop looking at polls, stop responding to everything your critics say. Instead, think big, figure out what the country needs and go for it.

At times, it seemed to many as if Jobs went out of his way to offend people, humiliating colleagues and employees whose work or ideas he found wanting, or dismissing critics with a biting put-down.

“Steve Jobs is willing to piss people off,” explains Walter Isaacson, whose biography of Jobs will be published this fall. “That’s not always an attractive trait, but it is sometimes very useful.” Jobs understands one of the great paradoxes of leadership — namely, that willingness not to be liked can make you wildly popular.

What’s not useful, as Obama has discovered, is letting people know how desperate you are not to offend them. It makes you look weak and ineffectual.

It also was in his Stanford commencement speech that Jobs first mused publicly about his illness and his own mortality.

“Remembering you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose,” he said.

The lesson for Obama is that if you spend your time and energy worrying about losing the White House, you’ll probably lose the White House. The biggest risk the president faces is being reluctant to take risks. It only confirms suspicions that he is weak and ineffectual.

The one thing you can say about Steve Jobs — indeed, the one thing he often has said about himself — is that he is an enthusiast. He loves what he is doing, he is energized by it and that enthusiasm is infectious — picked up by his colleagues, customers and even by a normally cynical press.

It’s hard to say the same thing about President Obama these days. The vibes coming from the president, and those around him, are of being tired, angry and demoralized.

Jobs, when he was running Apple day to day, was brilliant at redefining the competition by redefining the problem he and his company were trying to solve. For him, it was never about increasing computing capacity or driving down cost or adding some new functionality. It was about changing the way you work or live or communicate.

Similarly, the challenge for Obama — Obama the Democratic president not less than Obama the Democratic candidate — isn’t, as conventional wisdom would have you believe, lowering the unemployment rate from 9.1 percent to 7.8 percent, or shaving $1 trillion off the 10-year budget deficit. His challenge is at once bigger and simpler than that: to restore faith and confidence of Americans in their government and their economic future.

Jobs had an incredible knack for setting bold, audacious goals and coming up with solutions that were incredibly sleek and simple. At Apple, he was not so much the master engineer and programmer as he was the master designer, and everything that Apple did — from the look and feel of its machines to the messages in its advertising to the layout of its retail stores — reflected that simplicity and design sensibility.

So what would a Jobs-like design for economic policy look like?

It would almost certainly include a radically reformed and simplified tax code, personal as well as corporate, with no rate above 25 percent.

It would involve a radical restructuring of entitlement programs so that benefits and payments to providers adjust automatically to formulas tied to growth in national income.

It would involve a wholesale restructuring of the federal bureaucracy that eliminated half of all programs judged to be least effective and essential or whose functions would be better shifted to the states.

It would be a guarantee of a two-year job to any qualified high school or college graduate under age 24 wishing to serve in the military, the Peace Corps or an expanded domestic service corps in exchange for below-market wages and college tuition or repayment of college loans.

For the next two years, it might mean setting up offices in every major city where anyone could make an appointment within 48 hours to sit down with a counselor from Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or the Federal Housing Finance Agency to refinance an existing home mortgage. Reductions in loan principal would be paid for out of future Fannie and Freddie profits and settlements from banks that engaged in fraudulent mortgage lending, servicing and underwriting.

Finally, it would almost surely involve creation of a professionally run Infrastructure Bank to consolidate and expand public investment in schools, transportation, recreation facilities and water and sewer systems, financed by a modest carbon tax and Build America savings bonds sold at post offices and banks.

Simple. Bold. Easy to use and understand.

If Jobs was fanatical about design, he was equally fanatical about execution, as anyone who has used an Apple product or visited an Apple store can attest. And in that there is also a lesson for Obama.

It sends a powerful message to employees and customers — taxpayers in this instance — when the leader of any organization is seen regularly rolling up his sleeves and immersing himself in operational details, praising when things are done well and throwing a hissy fit when they are not. And it is equally powerful, in a negative way, when leaders are seen to always delegate operations to subordinates or tolerate less than top-notch performance (think President Bush and Hurricane Katrina). A little well-timed micromanaging from the top is a lot better way to persuade a cynical public that their government is competent and efficient than those meaningless set-piece media events at schools and factories.

I realize running a private business is different from managing divided government in a democracy. Analogies can be easily overdrawn. But it’s also true that leadership is leadership, and right now Barack Obama could probably learn more from an hour with Steve Jobs than another week with his timid and dispirited crew of political and economic advisers.

Steven Pearlstein is a business and economics columnist who writes about local, national and international topics.
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