President Trump signed a sweeping executive order Tuesday to eliminate or streamline permitting regulations to speed construction of roads, bridges, pipelines and other infrastructure projects. It’s an action welcomed and advocated by many business groups. But the announcement was quickly forgotten after the president veered off script and again blamed “both sides” for the race-tinged violence in Charlottesville this weekend.
For long-time government watchers, this is part of what’s so perplexing about President Trump’s use of his bully pulpit. He has an historic opportunity to work with a Republican Congress and make serious progress on important economic issues, like failing infrastructure and tax reform. And he has the most powerful platform in the world from which to advocate for those policies. But time and again, he allows his economic message to be muddled by diverging from script and wading into controversy—then attacking the press for focusing on the wrong story. He may not like the way the press dances, but he controls the music.
His equivocation over who’s to blame for events in Charlottesville continues to pose a dilemma for business leaders. Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon wrote a note to employees yesterday saying the president “missed an opportunity to help bring our country together by unequivocally rejecting the appalling action of white supremacists.” McMillon did not resign from the president’s advisory panels—as did the CEOs of Merck, Intel and Under Armour —but his letter is particularly noteworthy given his business depends on shoppers in areas where support for the president remains strong. Trump continues to attack the departing CEOs, calling them “grandstanders,” while Trump critics have launched social media campaigns against the CEOs—like Campbell’s Denise Morrison—who chose to stay on.
As I mentioned yesterday, the willingness of CEOs to weigh in on divisive political issues represents a sea change in how business leaders think about their jobs. That’s driven in some degree by the expectations of their employees—particularly millennials. The folks at Weber Shandwick yesterday sent me the results of a poll that found that roughly half of millennials believe CEOs “have a responsibility to speak up on issues important to society”—compared to only 28% of Gen Xers and Baby Boomers.