POLITICAL insider and industry leader, Samuel K Skinner gained rare insight into the political processes that affect development of transportation sector regulations. Just as importantly, he understands the Chicago influences that shaped the Obama Administration.
Skinner drew on his political insights to discuss the outlook for the trucking industry during the keynote address at National Tank Truck Carriers' 62nd Annual Conference in Chicago, Illinois. His resume includes stints as chief of staff to President George H W Bush and three years (1989-1991) as President Bush's Transportation Secretary. On the corporate side, Skinner served with the law firm of GreenbergTraurig, transportation and logistics provider USF Corp, and utility Commonwealth Edison Co.
President Obama has displayed an interest in alternative transportation options that could hurt trucking. “Department of Transportation priorities are being driven out of the White House,” Skinner said. “The President is intrigued with options such as high-speed rail and bicycles. High-speed rail is extraordinarily expensive, and I'm not convinced it would pay for itself. I think [Obama] is drinking Kool-Ade on this. It just doesn't seem to make any sense as an investment priority.”
Even as President Obama touts prohibitively expensive high-speed rail projects, he shows little interest in highway infrastructure improvements. This means more traffic congestion and a steady decline in the nation's aging highway system.
“The Highway Trust Fund is inadequate for our current infrastructure needs, but President Obama is unlikely to call for a fuel tax increase,” Skinner said. “Competition for tax revenues is growing more intense, and we need to find alternative funding options.”
Skinner described the Obama Administration as aggressively pro-labor. This orientation is having a direct impact on trucking, and business in general. Unionizing efforts are increasing across the public and private sectors and are becoming very intense.
“In fact, Barack Obama is the most pro-labor US president in years,” he said. “Among unions, the Service Employees International Union controls a big part of the policy process in this administration. Unions are growing fastest through government jobs. For instance, the Department of Defense plans to hire 40,000 procurement managers, and they will become union workers.”
A life-long Chicagoan, Skinner drew on a personal knowledge of President Obama and his White House staff. He described President Obama as very smart, politically astute, well-intentioned, personable, and charming. President Obama took office with a reservoir of good will from the American people and recruited some very smart people to work in his Administration.
Unfortunately, some serious negatives came with the positives. Skinner noted that the President had no executive experience whatsoever. President Obama served as an Illinois state senator from 1997 through 2004, when he was elected to the US Senate.
“I believe he has good intentions and he believes in what he is doing,” Skinner said. “However, that lack of executive experience is critical, and he is still learning how to be an effective manager.”
Barack Obama couldn't have picked a tougher time to be president. These would be challenging times for even the most experienced president.
“Difficult issues faced during the first year of the Obama Presidency include an acute financial crisis for banks and housing, a deep recession with continued significant unemployment, increased terrorist threats and further unrest in the Middle East, huge deficit spending by prior administrations, and significant immigration issues and violence at our borders,” Skinner said. “Add the recent Gulf oil spill tragedy to all of this, and you're talking about a really tough day at the office.”
In addition to a lack of administrative experience, President Obama has surrounded himself with staffers and appointees who have little respect for the private sector and naively believe that bigger government will solve the nation's problems. “President Obama and most of his team lack private sector experience and don't appreciate that part of the economy,” Skinner said. “It is an administration that is heavy on academia and knows little or nothing about how the economy really works.”
The view of big government as the solution for all problems was a big driving factor in the push to pass the national health care program. “The health care system in America had problems, but it wasn't broken,” Skinner said. “It didn't need a big government fix. The new system has problems of its own, including time bombs such as a half billion dollars in Medicare cuts and the likelihood that employers are going to bail out of the current health insurance system. Public health care is going to be a disaster.”
Skinner also chided President Obama for the runaway spending associated with the various stimulus programs enacted over the past year. “All of that stimulus spending was ineffective,” he said. “It didn't create any jobs in the marketplace.”
Beyond the ideological naivety, President Obama lost control of much of the agenda to Congress and allowed himself to become isolated in the White House with the people who followed him to Washington DC. President Obama needs to start seeking advice from a broader cross section of the American public.
“President Obama is having difficulty getting good advice from his associates in the White House,” Skinner said. “The President needs to listen to the people, but he's not providing any opportunity for dialog with real people. He must understand that he can't disrespect 50% of the public. In addition, he and his administration need to listen to the private sector, which is losing confidence in President Obama's ability to govern. All we get are teleprompter speeches from the White House.
“President Obama needs bi-partisan support in Congress. It will be critical to any future success. The problems we have today are too big to solve on a partisan basis. Congress is a broken institution at this point, and President Obama must take the lead.”
Skinner concluded with a list of five critical areas that he believes will define the Obama presidency: (1) He must win the war in Afghanistan and ensure stability in Iraq. (2) Achieve meaningful financial sector reform with bi-partisan support. (3) Address immigration issues with realistic solutions that ensure US border security. (4) Develop a true jobs initiative that will build the US economy. (5) Return to a disciplined approach for federal budgeting and spending.
“It's still early in Obama's presidency, but 2010 is a critical year,” Skinner said. “It's a mistake to count him out, but the clock definitely is ticking.”