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March 1, 2009

REBUILDING TRUST IN THE SYSTEM

Chances for successfully resuscitating the economy will depend on how effectively and ethically that can be achieved.

John Mercurio is the executive editor of The Hotline for the National Journal Online and writer of the blog Politiscope. Forward asked him how to restore public trust in our political, business and financial institutions, and how long that will take.

What are the prospects for a return to confidence and trust in politicians, corporations, financial institutions and their leaders—in short, the system?
The prospects for a return to confidence and trust depends heavily on two things: the level of success that each of these groups is able to achieve in reviving the country’s economy and the level of success they have in doing so without allegations of impropriety, legal or ethical.

Why?
Because if “the system” works— and by “works,” in this case, I mean gets the economy moving again—and does so without breaking any laws or accepted ethical standards, I think that people in this country will begin to accept that “the system” works.

When can we expect this to happen?
That’s a very good question, but one that I don’t think anyone knows the answer to. I’d say we should have a sense of how effective President Obama and Congressional Democrats are by the end of 2009.

What will it take?
It will take what I call the three Cs: cooperation, collaboration and consultation—an extraordinary amount of each, from both political parties. Our country’s political leaders need to make a sincere effort to end the divisive, ankle-biting, “gotcha”' partisanship that has dominated the culture of Washington and this country for nearly two decades. Obama won the White House and his party controls Congress, which means that the responsibility falls on them to initiate this process. They’re the ones who have something to lose; they’re the ones who need to make sure they’re successful.

Is the Obama campaign’s transparency via digital technology a way to restore confidence?
Absolutely. I think Obama’s ability to utilize the Internet and digital technology during the 2008 campaign was a key part of why he won the presidency. It helped people feel as though they are connected to their leaders in a way that rallied support and engendered trust and confidence.

What are some other ways?
The best way is to make progress. It sounds overly simplistic, perhaps, but the reality is that success breeds confidence. People will trust their leaders and the system if they believe [those leaders are] doing the right thing and doing it well.

Do we have to look backward, that is, repair the things that destroyed trust, assuming we can agree on what they are? Or can we do a trust version of amnesty and just start over?
Interesting question. I do think part of the problem exists because of institutional problems, structural flaws in the way the country is governed. The banking industry, and the way it’s regulated, is a good example of a system that needs to be restructured before the government can rebuild trust. A “restructuring” can be minor or minimal. It doesn’t automatically presume that you have to start from the ground up.

Will Obama’s infrastructure program help rebuild trust that government can do something that will help? Or is skepticism so high that the program will be looked on as just another potential pork barrel?
We live in a time when people are so concerned about their economic stability that they are willing to accept a stimulus package if our political leaders can convince them that it will make a difference. A big part of that package is the infrastructure proposals.

Nonetheless, it depends on how the infrastructure money is handled. Contracts related to infrastructure are traditionally a big source of corruption and unethical business practices. If we start to see these projects handled in a similar way, it could severely damage the level of trust that exists between the people and their political leaders.