Should Business Leaders Use Their Bully Pulpit?

PHOTO: Warren buffett and Business leaders are fed up with Washingtons gridlock that threatened a near default on the nations debt earlier this summer.
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Business leaders too are fed up with the Washington gridlock and more are publically speaking out.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz sent an open email Thursday repeatedly requesting that all American business leaders withhold campaign contributions until Washington comes up with deficit package that is "transparent, comprehensive [and] bipartisan."

Many CEOs are excited with Schultz's idea and others are finding other ways to make their statement.

The CEO of Caterpillar Doug Oberhelman came out swinging Monday in an interview with the Financial Times, criticizing the political brinksmanship that threatened a near default on the nation's debt earlier this summer.

"The process was ugly and it was a red herring of a problem," said Oberhelman.

Lawmakers in Washington struck a debt deal at the last moment in the beginning of August, but the heartburn from a messy debt deal left psychological scars on the market – stocks climbing and falling abruptly for the better part of a month.

Now Oberhelman wants Congress to pass three long-stalled free trade agreements, a deal that would likely increase machinery exports for Caterpillar and possibly create more jobs here in America. But Democrats and Republicans remain deadlocked on a solution.

It's this lack of decisive action that has many business leaders taking a more and more vocal political role. And while these high-powered executives don't all share the same political message they do share a frustration with Washington's inability to get much done.

Warren Buffett has made reforming the tax system and making wealthy people like himself pay more taxes a personal crusade.

Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, signed a pledge with over 100 other CEOs to withhold political donations until Washington has a long-term solution to the national debt.

Many CEOs are excited with Schultz's idea and others are finding other ways to make their statement.

Ron Shaich is the founder and chairman of Panera Bread. He's one of the co-founders of No Labels, a group created to support cooperation in government as a means of getting things done.

"We live in a political environment that obviously focuses on the short term," Shaich said in an interview. "We know from business when you take a broader view than getting through the next quarter."

Schaich encouraged other CEOs to speak to their issues and national issues too.

"We're all citizens, I'm not my company," Shaich said.

But it can be hard to distinguish between a CEO's business interests and their personal politics. And that is the reason why some executives have chosen to keep silent. Some business executives have gotten into trouble for making political statements.

James Mahoney, the public policy director for Bank of America, was caught on camera at a political event in New Hampshire offering his company's support to Republican Presidential Candidate Rick Perry.

The company was forced to release a statement distancing itself from Mahoney, reiterating that "Bank of America does not endorse presidential candidates."

Corporations are also finding that customers may equate a monetary donation to speaking out in support of a candidate's policies.

Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel got into trouble with customers and employees after donating $150,000 to Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, who opposes gay marriage. Target was forced to clarify their position on gay rights, but the company remained committed to many of the governor's economic policies.

New Balance CEO Rob DeMartini was also force to apologize to customers after the company's chairman, James Davis, gave a secret political donation to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who signed an anti-gay marriage pledge.

And because so many customers are so passionate about many political issues, many customers are threatening to vote with their wallets. And while there is no current hard data to suggest a drop in sales, Ornstein recommends that companies be wary of how their executives express themselves.

"You can lose a lot of customers and not necessarily gain anything in your own interests," said Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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