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).