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12.22.2009 - 10:06PM

Category: Corporate Social Responsibility

Assessing Obama’s First Year Through the CSR Lens: Beyond the Success/Failure Dichotomy

Billbauephoto

By CSRwire Contributing Writer Bill Baue of Sea Change Media

"When you look at my record, it's very clear what I've done so far," said Barack Obama, "and that's - nothing, nada... Global Warming: Not Done... Limits on Executive Power: Not Done... Improve Afghanistan: Worse." Quoting this Saturday Night Live impersonation lampooning the Presidential promise/delivery ratio is becoming a prerequisite for the coming onslaught of first-year-in-office assessments, so it's worth asking why. One answer: Obama's lofty aspirations uplift expectations that inevitably dash hopes when they meet reality, creating a sense of disjunction - an anxiety this skit taps into.

Assessing Obama's first year through the corporate social responsibility (CSR) lens reveals a strikingly similar hope/reality disconnect. On the economic front, many who believed in Obama's change agenda were sorely disappointed by his appointing the likes of Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner. They seemed like foxes guarding the henhouse, as their adherence to the very deregulatory Rubinomics that created the financial meltdown of 2008 ran counter to the need for true Wall Street reform. And pumping trillions into the banks that caused the mess only confirmed this cynicism.

Environmentalists were more enthusiastic about Obama's appointment of scientists (Steven Chu, John Holdren) and regulators (Carol Browner, Lisa Jackson) who actually believe in anthropogenic (or human-caused) climate change. However, many believe the Obama team left their potential unfulfilled in brokering the Copenhagen Accord that fell far short of the carbon cuts needed to curb catastrophic climate change - not to mention its disregard for the legitimate negotiation process in ignoring the voices of those most affected by climate change, such as small island nations.

These examples key in on the tension at the heart of CSR, which often boils down to a tug-of-war between big picture theories and on-the-ground implementation. Looking at the latter through a microscope, Obama's track record appears much more attractive. For example, the Obama SEC issued a staff interpretation allowing shareholders to file resolutions on social and environmental risk, which were often nixed under previous regimes. And of course the Obama EPA finally made good on the Supreme Court mandate to regulate carbon dioxide, which sets the stage for carbon reductions even in the absence of Congressional action. Perhaps most significantly, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act married economic bailout to green energy and jobs stimulus, a connection that paves the way toward a low-carbon economy.

Of course critics could cite shortcomings in these measures, just as they could with many CSR initiatives. And that's exactly what makes the SNL skit funny, fueled by the tension between aspiration and implementation. Looking just at the big picture, or just at the details, observers are bound to be disappointed by the seeming failure to make the two meet. Stepping back, however, one can see the gradual accumulation of incremental changes adding up to some fairly profound shifts toward greater corporate social responsibility.

Likewise, a wider-viewed assessment of Obama's freshman report card reveals a slow march toward the social, environmental, and economic changes promised in campaign rhetoric. It remains to be seen if this path that Obama is charting will lead to the kinds of paradigm shifts many view as necessary to achieve true sustainability. In the meanwhile, give thanks to SNL writers for hitting our funny bones, making us laugh at the impossibility of reconciling the success/failure dichotomy.

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