What Does Howard Schultz Want?

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"We are better than this." That's the message Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz wants Congress and America to hear, according to full page ads in the New York Times and USA Today, where Schultz invites "concerned Americans" to take part in a teleconference tonight, to address what he calls the "pervasive failure of leadership in Washington."

What's got him so hot under the collar? Schultz has made no secret lately of his disgust with what he deems an unacceptable level of partisanship and political wrangling in Congress.

"For every day they perpetuate partisan conflict and put ideology over country, America and Americans suffer," Schultz said. "We cannot let this stand."

Last month, Schultz asked fellow business leaders to boycott campaign contributions until both parties reached a bipartisan deal on debt. He also urged them to invest in projects that will create jobs, and help kick start the sluggish economy.

In his ad, which comprises an open letter, Schultz claims that more than 100 CEOs have answered his call and have pledged support on both fronts.

Schultz's call to action hasn't stopped with business leaders. He claims in the past weeks he's been inundated with letters from ordinary Americans expressing their frustration with the lack of improvement in their circumstances.

"Some feel they have no voice," he writes. "Others feel they no longer matter. And many feel they have been left behind."

Their stories spurred Schultz to this latest endeavor, outlined in the letter: a national 'call-in conversation', scheduled for today.

The conversation, detailed on www.upwardspiral.org, will be led by Schultz and hosted by the non-partisan group No Labels. Their goal, as outlined on the website, is to combat what they say is hyper-partisanship in politics, and to make the movement "a powerful voice and counterweight to ideological extremes."

Schultz invites "concerned Americans" to join the teleconference, which will be streamed online, and is scheduled to last 90 minutes starting at 7.30 p.m. ET. Schultz will sit on a panel with founders of Nolabels, as well as economic experts and political strategists from both ends of the spectrum -- and callers will be allowed to ask questions.

The goal, according to Schultz's letter, is to "send a message to today's elected officials. ... That the time to put citizenship ahead of bipartisanship is now."

Jim Olson, vice president of corporate communications at Starbucks, says they expect as many as 50,000 callers to join the teleconference. He says Schultz hopes a groundswell of support will help shift Congressional focus from bipartisanship, to citizenship.

The timing of the forum is notable -- it comes ahead of a crucial Republican presidential debate Wednesday, and the president's address on job creation Thursday to a joint session of Congress.

"I love our country," Schultz writes. "But I am very concerned that at times I do not recognize the America that I love."

Schultz's high profile campaign against partisanship is not without detractors. Some pointed to Starbucks 17 percent price increase on packaged coffee earlier this year, as sign that Schultz's concern for Americans' economic woes does not extend to compromising his own corporate profits.

But Schultz defended his position at the time to the Telegraph, blaming record high commodities prices.

Other critics claim Schultz's first responsibility should be to his shareholders, employees and customers, and that he is risking revenue by potentially alienating stockholders and taking time out of his job running the multi-billion dollar corporation

While Schultz is now urging others to eschew campaign donations, it's also notable that he and his wife have personally made significant political contributions in the past. According to the Center for Responsive politics they've donated thousands since 1994, with the vast majority going to the Democratic National Committee -- and only $1,000 going to a Republican, Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign.

Indeed some Democrats have criticized Schultz for this latest move, citing John Boehner's boast that he got 98 percent of what he wanted in the debt deal, and claiming Schultz's project is simply hurting the party that they believe is actually willing to compromise.

The Seattle Times also points out that what they've dubbed the "Refuse to Schmooze" pledge doesn't prevent people from donating to non-incumbents or political action committees, which can then redirect funds to politicians.

Blog author Curtis Cartier writes: "When big-name business leaders come out with hearty pats for their own backs about 'changing the system,' keep in mind that the system itself provides plenty of ways to remain unchanged while still letting folks like Schultz pretend to own the moral high ground."

Others agree Schultz's pledge won't fundamentally change the system of political donations.

"He should have gone further and asked all other CEOs to end all campaign contributions, period," Robert Reich, former Labor Department secretary, told ABC News. "They're corrupting our politics and are not even in the interest of shareholders."

Schultz does however have plenty of supporters for the pledge. Among them: the chairman and CEO of AOL, and the CEOs of Nasdaq, the Stock Exchange and JC Penney. The list includes those who have contributed to both Republican and Democratic candidates.

As it stands, the list could theoretically represent a serious loss of political funding.

"It's not an indefinite suspension of campaign contributions," Olson said, "but a way of trying to get our elected officials on both sides of the aisle to realize it's time to put bipartisanship aside, put America's interests forward and get a long-term courageous debt deficit bill finalized that helps turn the economy around."

Joining ranks with the millions of Americans tired of Congressional posturing and deadlock certainly won't hurt Starbucks reputation.

"Schultz's stance clearly resonates with large elements of the public," said Tim Lynch, partner at corporate communications firm Joele Frank, Wilkinson Brimmer Katcher. "He has used his position as a business leader to express what a lot of people seem to be thinking."

But is the project simply a grand PR exercise, designed to make both Starbucks and participating companies appear sympathetic to the frustrations of millions of Americans, but packing little real clout?

Without being legally binding, it still leaves the door open for any company that has pledged to boycott contributions, to break ranks if it feels it can gain an advantage by doing so.

Additionally, according to Opensecrets.org, the majority of large campaign contributors between 1989 and 2010 were from associations and unions, not large corporations. Finally it wouldn't be particularly difficult for a pledged company to channel funds into elected officials coffers through a back door.

However when it comes to the second part of the pledge -- to hire more people -- Starbucks is putting its money where its mouth is. The company currently employs more than 107,000 people in the United States alone. It has hired more than 36,000 people in the United States and Canada since January, and says it expects to continue to create jobs in the next six to 12 months.

Schultz could certainly have boosting the company's image in the eyes of beleaguered Americans as a potential motive. But regardless, chances are that by getting large corporations to publicly pledge to boost hiring, Schultz's plan may help increase investor confidence as well as employment, and thus give the economy a much needed boost.

Signing on to Schultz's pledge, Nasdaq OMX Group CEO Bob Greifeld promised: "We will also continue to invest in the future by hiring and focusing our efforts on job creation."

If Starbucks is correct, and tonight's teleconference attracts contributors in the tens of thousands, it will certainly give credence to a rising tide of voices clamoring for bipartisanship in Congress. Perhaps the first step in what's come to be known as the "Starbuckisation" of America extending beyond coffee, and into Capitol Hill.

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