The Winter of Our Discontent

The slide began in September.

Lehman BrothersMerrill LynchA.I.G., Fannie and Freddie, GMFordChrysler, Representatives Tim Mahoney and Charles Rangel, Senator Ted Stevens.

Early yesterday we learned of the arrest of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich on corruption charges stemming from trying to sell President-elect Barack Obama’s vacated senate seat to the highest bidder.

We also learned that internal documents from mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, show “…that senior executives were warned years ago that they were offering mortgages that could pose dangers… and growing risks.”

Greed, mismanagement, power, hubris.

There are no longer cracks in our ethical infrastructure, these latest examples represent massive, critical failures from both individuals and institutions.

In October, Wade Clark Roof, a colleague at the Walter H. Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion and Public Life at the University of California, Santa Barbara and I commissioned Zogby International, to put a post-election survey into the filed on November 5 and 6.  We asked three, open-ended questions:

1. What one or two qualities do you think the country needs most from the new president?

2. What one or two actions would you like to see accomplished most by the new president and Congress?

3. What one or two words best describes what you think the new president needs to do to get the country back on track?

Responses came from more than 3,300 individuals from across the country, representing all ages, income levels and party affiliations.

While the complete report can be found at the “post-election survey” link above, I’d like to take you through a snap-shot of what we found.

The results indicate that Americans are looking for an intelligent president who displays honesty, integrity and leadership.

“Honesty” was the quality most cited at 18%, followed by “Integrity” and “Leadership,” both at 12%.  These three qualities were cited in 42% of total responses.  The overlapping quality associated with “Honesty,” “Integrity” and “Leadership” was “Intelligence.”

When it comes to specific actions Americans would like the new president and Congress to address most, it is not surprising that the “Economy” was an overwhelming concern at 65%, followed by “End War/Withdraw from Iraq” at 19% and “Healthcare” at 15%.

When asked what the new president needs to do to get the country back on track, a majority of those polled cited “Lowering Taxes” at 62%.  This percentage is close to the proportion in the survey who indicated earning below $100,000 (72%).  “Cut Government Spending” followed at 17%.

While a case could be made that the American public would always choose honesty and integrity in their newly elected officials, co-author of the study, Wade Clark Roof with the Capps Center said, “The responses point to a deep, underlying concern for trustworthy leadership.”

There’s a lot of frustration and anger out there from an American public directed at elected officials and top-level corporate executives involved a variety of ethics scandals.  In a 2006 study I conducted on Honesty and Trust in America, the public rated President Bush with 69% ‘low’ levels of ‘trustworthiness.’  Congress rated even lower at 75%.

Despite concerns for the economy, healthcare and the war in Iraq, most people can handle the truth.  In fact, in the country’s more than two-hundred year history, we’ve survived both wars and an economic depression.  However, what the American people can’t handle – what they are unwilling to accept – is being misled, deceived or lied to.

In light of the most recent ethical failures, the responses from Americans should be taken as a wake-up call to ALL leadership, but particularly those elected to high office. In the words of one respondent, what Americans are calling for at such a critical time is “complete honesty, unquestionable integrity.”

On Friday, I’ll share some specific and hopeful advice the American public is offering the next president and Congress.

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