An Entrepreneurial President?

Jonathan Ortmans, President, Public Forum Institute

While programs and policies will tell, if his statements and actions so far are anything to go by, President Obama is shaping up to be the “entrepreneurship” President.

Obama knows the basic research on entrepreneurship. Last May, of entrepreneurs he said: “So small businesses like these are driving our economy. You’re the job creators, responsible for half of all private sector jobs. You’re innovators, producing 13 times more patents per employee than large companies. You’re the starting point for the products and brands that have redefined the market. After all, Google started out as a small business; that was a research project. Hewlett-Packard began with two guys in a garage” (Remarks by the President at Ceremony Honoring National Small Business Award Winners, May 19, 2009).

Just a few days ago, the President called for more great ideas to be translated into businesses: “I believe that jobs are best created not by government, but by businesses and entrepreneurs who are willing to take a risk on a good idea. I believe that our role is not to disparage wealth, but to expand its reach; not to stifle the market, but to strengthen its ability to unleash the creativity and innovation that still make this nation the envy of the world” (Remarks by the President on 21st Century Financial Regulatory Reform, June 17, 2009). Obama seems to understand that all entrepreneurship is social in the sense that it benefits not just the successful visionary, but also the rest of society through innovations, jobs and wealth.

Obama also offered a vote of confidence to entrepreneurs with the various measures he implemented to help small businesses and innovators in his recovery measures and budget, from a boost in SBA lending to large investments to move the innovation pipeline in energy technology and broadband. He highlighted the role of entrepreneurs in the economic recovery in various occasions: “Our recovery in the present and our prosperity in the future depend upon the success of America's small businesses and entrepreneurs. And that's why my administration has already taken aggressive action on their behalf. My recovery plan, as already been noted, raises the guarantees on SBA loans to 90 percent and eliminates costly fees for borrowers and lenders that can be too costly in a recession. And these changes are being implemented now, fulfilling a campaign promise that I made. The recovery plan also includes a series of tax cuts for small businesses and tax incentives to encourage investments in small businesses. And the Treasury Department has launched the Consumer and Business Lending Initiative to help unfreeze the credit markets” (Remarks by the President to Small Business Owners, Community Leaders and Members of Congress, March 16, 2009).

In the same speech, President Obama also expressed his desire for an education system that fosters the entrepreneurial mindset among our youth, when he called for “an education system that instills in each generation the capacity to turn ideas into innovations, and innovations into industries and jobs.” As I have argued before (see “Entrepreneurship in Education”), our innovative culture is facing educational threats. Entrepreneurship policies should include the nurturing of entrepreneurial talent from an early stage among our youth. We are waiting to see innovative practices implemented in education, especially in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), but there is promise in the budgets’ new rewards for teacher performance, the Administration’s call for states to lift the cap on the number of charter schools they build, and legislation to implement technology in the classroom, as well as to improve sharing of best practices.

An entrepreneurial society functions as a complex ecosystem that extends beyond the artificial grid of national boundaries. In this regard, Obama has engaged in transnational dialogues.  He has gone further than past Presidents who have focused on increasing U.S. competitiveness; he understands the foreign relations value of the American pioneer culture.

In Cairo, Egypt, President Obama announced that the U.S. government will host a Summit on Entrepreneurship this year to identify how we can deepen ties between business leaders, foundations, and social entrepreneurs in the U.S. and Muslim communities around the world, saying that “all of us must recognize that education and innovation will be the currency of the 21st century” (Remarks by the President on a New Beginning, from Cairo, Egypt, June 4th, 2009). Similarly, at the March G-20 meeting, President Obama called for cooperation “to restore the sustained growth that can only come from open and stable markets that harness innovation, support entrepreneurship and advance opportunity” (A time for Global Action, March 23, 2009).

While I have yet to see a call for an “Entrepreneurs Peace Corps”, this President understands that exporting entrepreneurship brings us more than just the commercial benefits of developing stable markets overseas. He demonstrates a healthy, global approach to entrepreneurship and innovation that stands in stark contrast to some of the more xenophobic thinking that occasionally rears its head in some parts of our nation’s capital. In previous articles (“A Bright Beacon in the “Shining City on the Hill” and “Combing the World in Search of Start-up Talent”), I have argued that we should export our knowledge about entrepreneurship and innovation not just to learn from others but because all boats rise on the incoming tide. 

All these ideas will be put to test as the Administration continues to find ways while discouraging abuse to revamp our economy and to allow our markets to be at the forefront of creativity and innovation. I know some of my more cynical friends will suggest it is not what a President says but what he does, but I am hopeful that this Commander in Chief understands that in our efforts to advance human dignity, economic prosperity and a more stable world, a “few good entrepreneurs” should be asked to serve in the vanguard.

Jonathan Ortmans is a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation where he focuses on public policies to promote entrepreneurship in the U.S. and around the world. In addition, he serves as president of the Public Forum Institute, a non-partisan organization dedicated to fostering dialogue on important policy issues.

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