If you found yourself sitting next to President Obama for 10 or 15 minutes, what message would you most urgently want to convey? What advice would you offer? We asked this question to Princeton area business leaders, mixing the profound — racial inclusion, employment, education, and energy — with the frivolous, including, of course, advice on the best choice for First Dog.

Respondents, including CEOs, poets, physicians, educators, and technology experts, invariably began by wishing President Obama the best of luck with what all acknowledge are a daunting array of uniquely challenging issues. Our “kitchen cabinet” then got down to business, in some cases using checklists to prioritize tasks and in others just offering simple pleas for help for their sectors.

We solicited advice for the First Lady, too. For what it’s worth, President and Mrs. Obama, this is what is on the minds of opinion leaders in the greater Princeton area as you begin your new life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Our hopes for a bright future are moving right in with you.

We begin our advice with thoughts on the economic front:

NJTC’s Maxine Ballen

I would encourage Barack Obama to prioritize innovation as one of the key basic tenets for his new platform. For years the United States has not kept pace on investing, supporting, and promoting innovation on our home shores. We must invest in our future now. Other countries have expended significant portions of their national budgets on R&D funding while we have earmarked less and less for investments in R&D funding, or other stimuli to spur innovation in this country.

I encourage Obama to consider reinstituting such valuable programs as the SBIC (Small Business Investment Corporations), expanded investments in private equity firms that are committed to the seed or early stage investments, tax credits for corporations that are invested in supporting innovation, and any incentives that will encourage companies to enter the innovation pipeline.

Maxine Ballen is the president & CEO of the New Jersey Technology Council in Mount Laurel.

State Senator Shirley Turner

No one can question the fact that we have been hit by a financial tsunami. How does President Barack Obama go about the process of recovery? That’s the trillion dollar question.

Stabilizing our economy should be his top priority, and he should focus on the economy like a laser beam. President Obama must stand firm on his campaign promise to strengthen the middle class, a promise that is now more crucial than ever. He must provide a bold stimulus package that will serve to jump start our economy and avert a serious depression. Small business and the consumer are the engines that drive our economy, but they were virtually ignored with the first $700+ billion bail-out for Wall Street. Therefore, the next recovery package should be targeted to Main Street. The middle class and small business represent the foundation on which our economy is built, and without employment opportunities or support, and without ending the meltdown in the real estate market, the stimulus package will fail.

Barack Obama has already presented a strategy, which emphasizes job creation, job loss prevention, and investment in blue and green collar industries to assist the middle class. However, he must remember that these are male-dominated fields and not everyone can be employed in labor intensive industries. Other sectors are hurting and many other workers have lost their jobs, too, including women, who make up a significant portion of our country’s workforce.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 71 million labor force participants were women in 2007. With only one percent working in construction, most women workers will be left out of the President-elect’s job creation plans. The President-elect must create jobs that will be viable for the more vulnerable members of our society, especially women who are single heads of households and senior citizens who are being forced out of retirement after losing their life’s savings. He must stem the tide of home foreclosures and work to reduce interest and mortgage rates. Those who are entrapped in adjustable rate mortgages must be given the opportunity for more affordable fixed-rates.

In creating new employment opportunities, it is also of paramount importance that these new jobs be kept within the United States. The corporations that sacrifice American workers and seek to exploit overseas or illegal labor should not be rewarded or supported with our tax dollars. These corporations that have outsourced American jobs have hollowed out the middle class and betrayed the country that brought them prosperity.

President-elect Obama must break from the failed policies and practices of his predecessors. His reinvestment and recovery plan must be subject to strict oversight, accountability, and transparency at all levels. He must change the “hands-off” approach to governing and re-establish a new good government era that will protect people’s jobs, investments, savings, and pensions by regulating our financial markets.

The American public must be assured that it will not be “business as usual” when spending our tax dollars. He must attach tight strings to each dollar doled out to ensure that the money is being spent for its intended purpose.

The most obvious waste of taxpayer money is currently being spent on the war in Iraq, a war that should have never been waged. With the loss of over 4,000 lives and at a price tag of $153 billion in 2009, a total of $1.6 trillion spent thus far, and an expected additional cost of $705 billion in interest through the next decade, it is a war that the American public cannot afford. He must work quickly to put an end to the wars overseas and focus on what has been neglected in our country over the last decade. A more practical and profitable investment would be for universal healthcare, education, and energy independence.

For this recovery plan to succeed, to ensure its sustainability, and for this country to prosper, no one should be asked to sacrifice more than others and everyone should see some benefit. Together, as a nation, “yes we can” overcome this economic storm.

Shirley Turner is the New Jersey State Senator for the 15th District.

Steven Goldman, Banking Commissioner

Barack Obama’s economic recovery plan must include major assistance to the millions of people in the country facing foreclosure. From all indications the incoming administration has given this type of assistance a high priority.

This help can take multiple forms, such as mandatory mediation between lenders and borrowers, funds to assist a borrower in refinancing a mortgage and obtaining mortgage insurance, and funds to provide more legal assistance and credit counseling to people facing foreclosure.

All of these suggestions and many other types of assistance should have as their principal goals keeping people in their homes, preserving neighborhoods, and putting a floor under housing prices.

Steven Goldman is the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance in Trenton.

James Hughes, Planning Expert

As you are about to embark on an infrastructure and economic investment surge unprecedented since the Interstate Highway System was authorized in 1956, one of its goals is to provide a politically-inspired, short-term economic stimulus to compensate for a plunge in consumer spending and business investment. However, an equally important purpose for this investment should be to fully reboot the American economy by bulwarking our nation’s future economic competitiveness.

While immediate economic impact is of utmost importance, the tyranny of short-term interests and thinking must not be allowed to trump America’s collective long-term imperatives. The investment must be forward looking — not backward looking.

The national winners of the 21st century global economy have not yet been determined. The United States must make much more substantial investments in the future in order to secure global economic leadership. Thus, it is incumbent that infrastructure and economic investments improve the climate for subsequent private investment, and provide the foundation for the emergence of transformative 21st century industries.

James Hughes is dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.

Manick Rajendran, Business Consultant

Enough has been said about the benefits of a gas tax by such eminent columnists as Tom Friedman: “A gas tax reduces gasoline demand and keeps dollars in America, dries up funding for terrorists, and reduces the clout of Iran and Russia at a time when Obama will be looking for greater leverage against petro-dictatorships.”

In spite of all these benefits though, at the highest levels the experts (yes, even Obama in a recent TV interview) claim that such a tax will affect the common man who desperately needs a break in this grim economic period.

Is that really true? Not quite. This global crisis has brought in a worldwide correction of behavior. The average American has changed his behavior at least in the short term. We have driven fewer miles this past year than ever before, effectively bringing down the demand for oil.

On the other hand, the wealthier among us have continued in their pre-crisis lifestyle. If a gas tax will increase prices back to $4, all of America will behave exactly the way we have behaved in the last six to eight months — the average American will remain frugal and the better-off will use their vehicles without being unduly worried at the gas pump. In the meantime, payroll tax breaks will compensate the average American. The result will therefore be that the gas tax will tap into the driving habits of the rich.

It will be disingenuous if the new administration points to the average American as the excuse for not levying a gas tax. Let us not send more of our money to the oil-rich economies … “A gas tax reduces gasoline demand and keeps dollars in America”.

Manick Rajendran, a Plainsboro resident, is the owner of Revenue Cycle Management, a healthcare business consulting company. www.ezecare.com. 201-349-0066.

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