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March 10, 2021 | by M. Robert Weidner, III

No More Excuses: Our Country Needs Leadership

“The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions.”

– President Dwight D. Eisenhower who oversaw construction of the U.S. interstate system

Just a few days after President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January, I attended the 4th Annual Town-Warming at the Barrington White House, a community center in our village. Our daughter Lauren and son-in-law Zach had their rehearsal dinner there. Among the many volunteer leaders who support this event each year is Motorola President and CEO Greg Brown. In addition to being a successful business executive, Greg is an exceptional moderator for the Town Warming keynote speakers.

Our featured speaker this year was Condoleezza Rice, the nation’s 66th secretary of state. During the conversation, Brown asked Rice a bold question: what is her greatest regret?

Rice did not hesitate: “9/11,” she said. Though the Bush administration had been in office for only eight months at the time, the fact that the terrorist attack happened while she was White House national security advisor still haunts Rice.

In today’s world of “gotcha” headlines, many leaders might have tried to deflect blame. Not Rice. She was not looking for a scapegoat, and it’s why she epitomizes the definition of leadership.

The policymakers who haunt Washington today could learn something from Rice. In today’s political arena, too many individuals look for excuses when they should be looking for solutions, and partners who will help drive those solutions.

One result of this mindset? It has been several decades since a U.S. president has signed a comprehensive infrastructure investment bill. (Not to be outdone, Canada also faces the result of major infrastructure underinvestment. As I have explained previously in Edge, 40 percent of Canadian roads and bridges are in fair, poor, or very poor condition.)

President Donald Trump promised a multi-billion-dollar infrastructure package – and so did his predecessor President Barack Obama. At various times during their respective tenures, both presidents enjoyed a Congress controlled by his own party. Yet they could not attract the handful of votes from the opposition party that was needed to get the 60 margin needed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. Why can’t presidents lead in a manner that draws bipartisan support?

Rhetorical question, I know.

Condi Rice discussed how the failure to invest in infrastructure has impacted students trying to learn, especially during the pandemic. According to a 2019 study, for example, approximately 30 percent of Mississippians do not have broadband. An unwillingness to spend on infrastructure has made it impossible for a generation of students to go online. Worries about hospital capacity, personal protective equipment, and ventilators are other examples of lawmakers’ unwillingness to invest in infrastructure and manufacturing capacity.

Lawmakers have offered many scapegoats for their failure: an unwillingness to raise the gas tax to help pay for increased highway spending or uncertainty about how to consider climate change when building bridges and pipelines. Every politician is good at pointing fingers, but few demonstrate leadership beyond their base. It is a sad state that must change.

Questions about funding and environmental impact are serious, but past generations have been able to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The moon landing? As this 2012 Atlantic article explained, most Americans and many U.S. scientists and lawmakers thought the Apollo program was too expensive – not worth it.

President John F. Kennedy is now revered for his vision.

On one of MSCI’s recent free webinars for members, I asked Ed Mortimer, U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president of transportation and infrastructure, why it has been decades since Congress last seriously invested in infrastructure. He cited a lack of vision, but he also suggested lawmakers need to think more like business leaders. If business leaders don’t act – if they rely on scapegoats to explain failures – jobs and livelihoods are lost.

How do we get lawmakers to change?

The late House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said “all politics is local.” We need to make the issue of investing in comprehensive infrastructure local.

That’s why MSCI has launched www.build-now.org, a microsite that allows Americans and Canadians to share photos of infrastructure in their towns, states, and provinces. Our goal is to create a grassroots viral movement to showpolicymakers how crumbling infrastructure impacts lives, families, jobs, and communities. I hope all of our members will join this movement and share the website.

We need to build momentum for action. We need to help lawmakers build the will to act.

During Greg Brown’s virtual conversation, Condi Rice mentioned she had taken up golf later in life and has become quite good. Golf is not easy to master. You cannot fake skill. If you don’t put in the work, you won’t make the putt. And you’ll be the only one standing on the green to accept the blame.

President Biden has promised bipartisanship and to pursue a comprehensive infrastructure spending bill. To get it done, he’ll need to channel Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. No excuses. No scapegoats.

Compromise, and get it done.