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Imagining President Obama's Council of Elders

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Hoping to reverse the bleak trend toward more and more unemployment, President Obama has nominated Alan Kreuger, a highly respected labor economist from Princeton University, to head his Council of Economic Advisors. Perhaps a labor economist will know enough about jobs to advise President Obama wisely about what to do to increase employment, the true path to a more robust economy. In truth, it's hard to know if Professor Kreuger's appointment will help boost a stubbornly sluggish economy. Will he make a difference or will he be the latest in a series of "dismal scientists" whose presidential advice has done little, if anything, to change the course of economic or political events?

Like most American presidents, Barack Obama tends to be advised by a wide assortment of "experts," most of whom have backgrounds in law, economics and (political) image management. It stands to reason that legal, economic and image-management reasoning has influenced many of his presidential decisions, which have disappointed progressives as well as independents. Indeed, legal, economic and image experts often follow a path of pragmatic conventional thinking -- thinking "in the box." Wouldn't it be refreshingly productive for President Obama to receive unconventionally imaginative advice from "out of the box" thinkers who would be part of a newly formed Council of Elders?

Considering President Obama's background, this idea is not as far-fetched as you might think. Mr. Obama's father was a Luo from Kenya, an ethnic group, like many groups in East and West Africa, which venerates the wisdom of elders. His mother was an anthropologist, an academic discipline known for "out of the box" imaginative thinking that has often placed the discipline on the margins of public debate. Why not convene a regular council of unconventional elders -- academics, writers, artists, technology wizards, farmers, small business owners and public officials known for their imaginative thinking and their lack of conflicted interests? Such a council would give President Obama unfiltered advice on all sorts of issues -- the economy, social policies, political dynamics, and/or the ongoing cultural shifts in society. Such candid advice would be a breathe of creative imagination that might temporarily replace the stale air of our contemporary political and social deliberations.

If President Obama convened such a council, what would the elders suggest? If the group included an African elder, someone like one of Mr. Obama's paternal relatives, he might talk about being clear, bold and forthright. He might say:

My son, imagine walking along a path that cuts through elephant grass. In full stride you come upon a lion. Your heart beats rapidly, but you don't turn around. You don't run into the tall grass. No, you stand your ground and talk to the lion in a calm but commanding voice. Eventually the lion yields to your more powerful force and slips back into the elephant grass, which enables you to walk forward on an unobstructed path. When you confronted Osama bin Laden, my son, you did not flinch. No, you stood your ground and moved forward and the world is a better place. When the stakes are high in the game of power, you must stand your ground and convince the lion, a worthy adversary that you respect, to yield to your will. When the adversary is as proud and intractable as the lion, there is no other way to walk forward.

If the group included an anthropological elder who had training and experience similar to the president's late mother, she might say:

Mr. President you are kind and decent man who has a big heart. The people know that you are extraordinarily intelligent, but they yearn for a leader who feels their pain and understands their frustrations. Speak from heart the way you did when you gave your speech on race and politics in Philadelphia in which spoke directly and courageously on the racial divide in America. In that speech, Mr. President, you called for a more perfect union in which we as a people transcend divisiveness. If you speak like that Mr. President on other issues, Mr. President, the majority of people will be behind you on taxes, immigration and the economy. In that speech, you spoke from the heart as well as the head. Through our diverse on-the-ground experiences, we anthropologists have learned that effective leadership -- especially in troubled times -- emerges from the fusion of head and heart.

The Council of Elders would certainly speak truth to power on a whole host of subjects -- jobs, the deficit, immigration, taxes, and foreign policy. Because they would be beholden only to the common good, they would give their advice forcefully and without special motivation. The creative energy that such a group would generate might even provide the intellectual stimulus for innovative social policies, a blueprint toward resolving our most difficult social and economic problems.

Is it not time to time to turn to our wise elders for guidance?

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