How Obama and McCain flubbed the trust question and how they could have answered it right

In the second US presidential debate October 7th, citizen Theresa Finch stood to ask her question of the two aspirants to the office of FLOTFW (Former Leader Of The Free World).

How can we trust either of you with our money when both parties got us into this global economic crisis?

A perfectly fair question any day; an especially relevant question these days. And—since this was an overt trust question—let’s talk here about what the answers were, and what they might have been.

Let’s begin with the Trust Equation (credibility + reliability + intimacy, all divided by self-orientation) as a route into the question. What constitutes a good answer to the “why should we trust you?” question? Salespeople have to face this question all the time. Let’s see how The Two answered it.

Answer A “Well, look, I understand your frustration and your cynicism, because… you’ve got a family budget. If less money is coming in, you end up making cuts. Maybe you don’t go out to dinner as much. Maybe you put off buying a new car. That’s not what happens in Washington. And you’re right. There is a lot of blame to go around.” [Proceed to attack other and promote self.]

Answer B Well, Theresa, thank you. And I can see why you feel that cynicism and mistrust, because the system in Washington is broken.” [Proceed to attack other and promote self.]

Their answers are nearly identical. Their first words were to channel Bill Clinton, minus the sincerity. “I understand your frustration. You’re right. I can see why you feel….”

Trust hint 1 Do not assert, after hearing a total of one sentence from a stranger, that you “understand what you mean” or “can see how you feel.” You don’t, you can’t, and even if you could, it’s a form of arrogance to assert it. Low marks on intimacy (faking it) and on self-orientation (clearly focused on their own agenda).

Trust hint 2 Avoid the non sequitur. If there’s a logical link between the faux Clinton opening and the blatant self-aggrandizement that follows, at least give it a few sentences to establish the logic. Low marks on credibility (illogical), and again on self-orientation.

Trust hint 3 At least attempt to answer the question. Their concluding sentences—which ought to close the loop on the question—were “The key is whether or not we’ve got priorities that are working for you,” and “I know how to fix this economy, and eliminate our dependence on foreign oil, and stop sending $700 billion a year overseas." Huh? Say what? Again, high self-orientation and low credibility.

Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, said, “Never answer the question they ask; answer the question you want to answer.” Was there ever a better reason to mistrust someone than that philosophy? Yet it persists in politics.

In fairness: how can you be trusted when you need 51% of the vote—every vote?

Let’s hear from you. How might either candidate have answered? To get us started, I’ll take a shot at it.

“Theresa, I happen to think that’s the most important question of the night. Lack of trust is what lies beneath liquidity and solvency in our banking crisis; is what’s causing us to spend massively on defense; and is costing us a mint in wasted litigation and transaction costs.

You’re right to point out that both political parties have mud on their hands. Regaining trust lost is doubly hard; and the country doesn’t have the luxury of saying ‘wait and judge us on our track record.’

So my answer is, partly—because you have to. We have no viable third party, and we’re still a stable democracy. Only we two are running. Still, that’s a big choice. You can choose X, or you can choose Y. Whichever you pick, a lot of people will agree, and many more will disagree with you.

Given that you’re stuck, the answer to “how will you trust” has got to morph into “what can I do to help make us a better country?” And I’d say this: hold us accountable. Don’t fall for us when we talk down to you in slogans. Write letters. Engage. Open your minds. Read magazines and blogs. Change the channels. Go talk to someone you disagree with. Don’t settle for someone who panders to the lowest common denominator. Figure out how to trust someone who’s leaning to vote the other way—then tell us all how you did it.

You want to trust one of us? Demand that we be worthy of your trust. Don’t settle. And why should you trust one of us? Because if you don’t, and don’t work at your part of it, you just withdraw from the game. And we need you to play your part.

Over to you. Post your own “why should we trust you” answer right here. I will personally pass on the winning answer to my good buddies Barack and John (both of whom could use it).

(Thanks to Stewart Hirsch for suggesting this post).



5 replies
  1. Ron Buck
    Ron Buck says:

    Today’s article (blog) is spot on!  You create a hypothisis that it is almost impossible for a presidential candidate to be trustworthy (based on their selfish orientation).  For once, I contend that if we had someone that would put the country first (way before themselves or the party) and exhibit more transparency with the voting public (who are way more intelligent than they think) we may, for the first time, really elect a president that we trust.  But more important a president that senators and representatives trust enough to work together. 

  2. Barbara Garabedian
    Barbara Garabedian says:

    Charlie: Ironically, I automatically thought that you’d jump on this "like white on rice" while watching the debate. Thanks Stewart for the suggestion and the "push".

    Politician & trust – in today’s world, that’s just an oxymoronic pairing.  I’m so tired of watching "debates". There isn’t a network, political party or moderator alive that forces them to actually answer a question!!!! I’m tired of the  written commercial instead of the answer.  Perhaps we should have the moderator poll the audience or have a virtually poll IN REAL TIME as to whether the politician answeres the question! Now that’s feedback that’s useful!!!

    I think you put your finger on it when you identified "accountability" as a legitimate trust meter. No one is held accountable today for anything…Oh how I long for another Harry Truman. Whether you liked his politics or not, he stood by his point of view- both public and private regardless of the "poll results"…remember "the Buck Stops Here" slogan on his desk and punching the reporter that criticized his daughter’s recital!!! 

    I don’t think Truman would have made it in today’s media world, between "spin" doctors, poll takers, party platform leaders, virtual polls, Internet research, bloggers, U-Tube, etc. Heaven forbid a politician should actually answer a question, if they do, its going to offend somebody and Lord knows they employ a cadre of staffers that won’t allow them to offend anybody! What would our world be like today if a politician (and not their spin docs) actually responded candidly to a question. They’d probably get crucified! The networks, the bloggers and the reporters would harass them like crazy!

    So how do we hold politician’s accountable today???? Don’t elect them is the easy response…but then who would there be to vote for as a replacement??? Who today w/ any backbone and without a $ billion in a bank account, can stand up to the unmerciful scrutiny & pandering for funding. The entire system is out of whack. I’ve often thought we need 3 choices when voting…Politician X; Politician Y or NO – I’m voting but don’t want either one, so start over!!


  3. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    The question, what would bring  me to trust them?

    Well, first dare to dream…so…I’ll dream…

    "…so I would ask you to trust me because (all things being equal—e.g., no attack fromMars) if my proposals  (specific proposals) do not show, for example,  an increase (would be defined) in the rate of GDP, GNP, etc., a decrease in mental health stats such as obesity, heart disease, cancer incidents/deaths, educational stats such as increased graduation rates, increased SATs, number of Charter schools and firings of incompetent teachers, etc., reduced carbon footprint, improved infrastructure  elements, e.g., roads, bridges, reduced unemployment, increased # of manufacturing jobs, etc., etc (…all spelled out) …after three years, I’ll blame my self , be accountable and I’ll  resign. Period"

    not quantum gains, but observable, measurable movement in the right direction – movement that appears consistent and constant..

    That would garner a degree of trust on my part. Remember, I’m dreaming, unfortunately.

  4. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Peter, something similar to what you suggested was actually done in Canada.

    In 1993, the Liberal Party of Canada led by Jean Chrétien published "Creating Opportunity: The Liberal Plan for Canada," which came to be known as The Red Book

    It lay outa long list of specific changes the Liberals would make if brought to power—including information on the how much the programs would cost.

    The Liberals published the book specifically as a strategy to break through the cynicism and distrust caused by the tumultuous and scandal-plagued years of Brian Mulroney’s tenure as head of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister of Canada.

    The result? The Liberals won the 1993 election with one of the largest majorities ever, and the governing Conservatives were all but obliterated. The majority of the promises were kept, and Chrétien went on to serve three successive terms as Prime Minister.

    I like your version better, but the original Liberal Red Book is still a higher level of transparency and accountability than I have personally  seen in government anywhere else.

    And Charlie: I think the Red Book concept measures up well with the Trust Equation.

    More on the Red Book here

  5. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:

    Barbara; clearly this means I’ve become predictable.  What’s that they say about consistency? Ah well.

    Shaula, what a great, real-world example.  Thanks for the history lesson.  Hey if the Canadians can do it…

    No, wait a minute; of course the Canadians can do it.  Question is, can the Americans do it? The French?  The Russians?  What do you think?


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