Most Powerful Women

Dear next President: Court your adversaries

October 3, 2012: 4:10 PM ET

The next President will need to raise the bar on how the White House reaches out to adversaries, according to a bipartisan panel at Fortune's Most Powerful Women conference.

Karen Hughes (left) and Mellody Hobson (right)

By Tory Newmyer, writer

FORTUNE -- President Obama would need to work much harder reaching out to unfriendly power centers in a second term. That was the striking point of bipartisan consensus from former George W. Bush adviser Karen Hughes and Obama bundler Mellody Hobson about how to repair our political dysfunction at Fortune's Most Powerful Women summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif.

Hobson, the president of Ariel Investments, said Obama needs to "go retail" with CEOs to rebuild frayed trust with the business community. "The outreach needs to step up dramatically," she said, suggesting the President schedule weekly lunches with a rolling roster of a half-dozen CEOs to discuss their concerns.

Hughes prescribed a similarly aggressive plan for bridging the gap with Congressional foes. "If I were the next President, I'd get in my limo, almost every day if necessary, and I would go down Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill, and I would meet with members of my party and the other party, and I would try to start rebuilding some trust," Hughes said. "Every CEO who is here would not allow this dysfunction to continue in their company. They would go to the scene of the crime."

Obama has made fitful efforts toward healing the rift with both camps, though the White House effectively gave up on achieving any big bipartisan breakthroughs after the collapse of the deficit talks last summer, laying the blame on programmatic obstruction by the GOP. And while the President has a small circle of friendly CEOs he stays in touch with, he isn't temperamentally inclined toward sustaining a broader charm campaign to bring business leaders back into the fold. 

Nevertheless, Hobson said Obama could tune up relations with the corporate world by bringing more from their ranks into his administration -- and by making sure to avoid provocative rhetoric.

"You've got to call a truce," she said, relating the story of one CEO, who pointed out that "Lincoln never called out the South. He knew he had to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. I actually thought that was a profound statement."

As a more practical matter, Hughes said the next President will need to tackle "the climate of uncertainty" -- like over tax rates -- that she called "deeply corrosive to the American people." Hobson jumped in to note that she serves on four corporate boards (Estee Lauder (EL), DreamWorks (DWA), Starbucks (SBUX), and Groupon (GRPN)), and "we've never talked about tax uncertainty in our board room. In four companies, it's never come up."

The panel -- which also included former FDIC chairman Sheila Bair and former Clinton adviser Elaine Kamarck, and was moderated by Fortune senior editor-at-large Nina Easton -- focused on offering "advice for the next President." By a wide margin, the crowd in attendance predicted an Obama victory. In an insta-poll of the audience, 63% said they expect the President to be reelected.

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About This Author
Sheila Bair
Sheila Bair
Contributor, Fortune

Sheila Bair is a Fortune contributor, and a former chair of the FDIC, and former member of the Basel Committee. She is also the author of the New York Times bestseller Bull by the Horns, Fighting to Save Main Street from Wall Street and Wall Street from Itself.

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