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Open letter to (presumably) president-elect Clinton: Use your victory as an opportunity

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton answers a question during the third presidential debate at UNLV in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton answers a question during the third presidential debate at UNLV in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016. (AP Photo/John Locher)
John Locher, AP

An open letter to likely President-elect Hillary Clinton:

Congratulations! You are likely to become the first female president of the United States. It has to feel good to fulfill a personal lifetime ambition and be in a position to shape an agenda that can change the world.

It has been a brutal and intense campaign. For a country that was already politically gridlocked, this campaign has turned into a dumpster fire of divisiveness.

But now it’s time to look ahead.

Madame President, you have a 90-day window to shape your agenda and send a message to the country. You could declare your opponent a misguided loser and paint his supporters with the same brush. You could embrace a “to the victor go the spoils” mentality as you push forward with your proposals and plans. Or you could change the political discourse of our country.

Your campaign theme is stronger together, and you have said you want to be the president for all Americans, not just those who voted for you. Now is the time to live up to that slogan. The vast majority of Americans want to feel they are making progress and finding meaning. They want those who hold high office to solve problems. They want to experience firsthand the values on which this country was founded.

So, what can you do in the first 90 days to send a message that you are going to change political discourse and work to rekindle an inclusive America for everyone? Here are some ideas:

  • Let go of the recent political assault. The political war you have just been through has been brutal. But when America created the Marshall Plan to restore rather than punish Europe after World War II, enemies became allies. Focus less on Donald Trump himself and more on those who voted for him. Some of his supporters will never accept you, but you must make it clear that you accept and serve them. Many who supported him feel left out of the economic, social and political mainstream. Reach out to these individuals. Invite their voices to be heard. Find ways to help them rekindle their dreams and hopes. Find forums to listen to them, and create policies and programs that serve them. As senator from New York, you had a reputation for listening. Continue to have an American listening tour where those who feel disengaged can be heard.
  • Highlight American “exceptionalism” and values. Speak some of the language of your opponents to get them to hear you. Centrist values are foundational to America: “All men are created equal … with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Values of freedom, liberty, equality, democracy and philanthropy are core to all Americans. Return to these core values and tenets repeatedly to find common ground. Spend a chunk of your transition time on the road with this new message without the carping and heckling of your opponent’s campaign.
  • Create a team of rivals. You quoted Abraham Lincoln, who led a nation at civil war. He worked to put his enemies in visible positions of influence and he listened to them. Put some of those who disagree with you (Republicans and independents) on your transition team. Invite them into your inner circle. Staff key jobs with some who disagree with you. Have the most politically diverse cabinet and advisors in political history. Welcome dialogue and debate. When his policies did not work, Lincoln took the blame; when they did work, he shared the credit.
  • Get out of your office. When a new neighbor moves in, old neighbors welcome him to the neighborhood by going to his house. Send a signal of respect and openness to political opponents by going to their offices, not yours. Having spent much of your adult life in Washington, you are aware of political symbolism. Smother your opponents with invitations to talk in person.
  • Have private discussions with those who disagree with you. You have acknowledged that the political process is often messy. There is a time for public posturing, but there is also a time for private problem-solving. Have a personal relationship with people of all political sides. President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill were opposed on many issues, but they found time to build mutual personal respect for each other. Make it your business to do business with Speaker Paul Ryan, another policy wonk, if he will meet you even a quarter of the way. Bring horse-trading back to the presidency, and give on some issues to get on some issues.
  • Find early wins. When organization leaders try to create a positive working environment, they often start with simple wins (e.g., improving the cafeteria or bathrooms). There are big problems facing America, but find some early common ground where you can model collaboration. Try to cut a deal on student-loan rate reduction or an infrastructure bill with bipartisan support.
  • Admit mistakes and learn from them. The crucial trait among leaders who succeed over time is called learning agility. When you make a mistake (and all leaders do), acknowledge it and move on. Leaders get into trouble when they try to wordsmith their way out of a bad decision.
  • Have friendly debates and differences. Praise those you don’t agree with for their good intentions, even if their solutions are not your solutions. Disagree in public without being disagreeable by avoiding personal attacks or denigrating others’ opinions.

Perhaps it is naïve to hope for a new political climate. But, because this political cycle has been so nasty, you have a unique opportunity to transform cynicism and divisiveness into confidence and unity. Use your victory as an opportunity. Dave Ulrich is Rensis Likert professor of business at the University of Michigan.