The new era of responsibility

Jan 20, 2009

I'm just back from five days in Washington, D.C. (yes, I commuted against the crowds this morning) and I'm feeling "the new era of responsibility" that President Barack Obama spoke about in his inaugural address today. This responsibility is power. It's also quite a burden. Are you feeling it too?

On Friday, I had a keen sense of it when I was meeting with Sheila Bair, the chairman of the FDIC. Here's a woman who expected a fairly benign job in 2006 when she arrived in Washington from a teaching gig at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. But of course, that was before the global economy fell apart. On Friday, when we met, she mentioned that she'd been in her office until 11pm the night before, approving another whopping bank bailout package - for Bank of America , on top of Citigroup's weeks before.

So Bair now has the power to make sweeping changes in the consumer-banking system, and she plans to use it. "I don't like these one-off transactions," she said of the BofA and Citi rescues. To get private capital flowing into the banks again, she's considering various ideas including a federally funded "aggregator bank" to buy toxic assets - but at what fair value? That is the question - one of many, actually. Clearly, Bair views her responsibility broadly. She's written two children's books on spending and saving, and even recruited consumer finance guru Suze Orman to be an FDIC spokesperson.

We're all feeling a little more responsible than we used to.  Saturday night, at a party I attended at LBJ's old home on 30th Place in northwest Washington, every guest stood next to a cardboard cutout of Obama and delivered a toast or tribute or oath to serve. Not a cynic in the bunch. On Sunday, I felt that responsibility at Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown. It was just in the air, with Joe and Jill Biden sitting in a pew behind me and the entire congregation rising to give them a standing ovation at the close of Mass.

Oh, last night, I felt it at the Huffington Post Pre-Inaugural Ball, where the themes were "service, green, new media and new era in Washington." Among an eclectic crowd that included recently displaced Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang, Robert de Niro and Jesse Jackson, I ran into Disney Media Networks co-chair Anne Sweeney and Rich Ross, who heads Disney Channels Worldwide. Ross told me that his managers are now dutifully incorporating messages about fiscal and civic responsibility into the programming.

Ross and Sweeney led me through the bowels of the ball's venue, the Newseum, to the loading dock to meet the Jonas Brothers. "Thanks for putting us in Fortune," said Kevin Jonas, referring to the Disney story in our last issue. If not for the global economic crisis, I noted, he and his two brothers might have made Fortune's cover - "oh, but you've been on loads of covers," I added. "Yeah, but we haven't been on the cover of Fortune," Kevin responded. It was nice to get a positive vibe and not a hint of anti-business swagger from America's No. 1 teen rock band.

Are you feeling the "new era of responsibility" that our new president called us to recognize today? I watched the inauguration with my colleague Carol Loomis, who has seen more history than most of us have. The first inauguration that she remembers was in 1937, for FDR's second term. Carol was a seven-year-old in Cole Camp, Missouri back then and she listened to the speech on radio, before she ever saw TV . "Well, that will go down as one of the great inauguration addresses," Carol said as Obama closed his speech this afternoon. If you missed the history in the making, click here to read his address or here to see it on video.

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