To Succeed as President, Bush Must Learn from Lessons of the Past

The Monterey County Herald, January 14, 2001
By Leon E. Panetta
In a few days, President-elect Bush will be sworn in as the 43rd president of the United States—the first new president of the 21st Century.

Unlike others in recent history, he will assume office with no clear mandate from the American people. This was the closest and most disputed election in recent history.

Fortunately for the new president, crisis does not consume the nation and he will have a little room to set his course.

But his success or failure will be determined by how well he understands this moment in history and his role in it. Bill Clinton recognized that he could only succeed if his presidency was viewed as moving the nation from the industrial to the information era, from a stagnant to a productive economy, from deficits to surplus, from cold war confrontation to global leadership. His vision from the beginning was that he would be judged on his capacity to guide the nation as it moved into the 21st Century.

One of the unique strengths of George W. Bush during the campaign was that he knew how to take a page from Clinton’s political playbook. He sought to portray his candidacy as moving his party to the political center. He spoke of compassionate conservatism, of unifying the nation, of working together. If contrasted with the more partisan campaign rhetoric of the past and helped him succeed as a candidate.

To succeed now as president, he has to learn again from the lessons of the Clinton presidency—both its successes and failures.

  • Govern from the center. One of the important legacies of the Clinton years is that he successfully moved the Democratic party to the center. On fiscal responsibility, trade, welfare reform and crime, he repositioned his agenda to capture the middle of the political spectrum. He maintained his support for affirmative action, civil rights, women’s choice and minimum wage to protect his party base. But he understood that America would only support his policies if they believed he was not just another ideological politician, but one representing all of the people. George W. Bush has the same challenge. If he governs only from the right side of the political spectrum, he will lose the support of those who care about country not party. If, on the other hand, he is willing to provide Republican leadership on such issues as education, health care and the environment, he could effectively reposition the Republican party and his administration to the center. Like Clinton, it doesn’t mean he can’t be for his party’s more traditional Republican issues like defense and tax cuts but it does mean he will have to go beyond his own party to govern effectively. With a 50-50 Senate, there may be little alternative. The new president’s early agenda will tell us whether or not he has learned this lesson.
  • “It’s the economy.” Bill Clinton understood that nothing he did as president would matter if the economy was stagnant. He said he would concentrate “like a laser beam” on it once elected and he did. His first economic plan helped balance the budget and set the groundwork for the strongest economy in our history, producing over 22 million jobs. President George W. Bush cannot succeed unless America can maintain a strong economy. People vote their pocketbook regardless of how many other good things a president does. President Bush’s father learned that in 1992 in spite of his success in the Persian Gulf War. Maintaining fiscal discipline, investing in an educated workforce, limiting tax cuts so they do not consume the budget surplus and expanding trade were the keys to Clinton’s economic policy. They are also the keys to the success of the new president.
  • America as a global leader. While Bill Clinton failed to offer a sweeping vision about America’s role in the post-Cold War era, he did have a pragmatic sense that America must provide leadership responsibility in a global world. Globalization is both a threat and a benefit—it can expand access to technology which can enrich or destroy life; it can equalize economic opportunity and also accentuate disparity; it can make dictatorships more vulnerable to democratic ideas and democracies more vulnerable to the spread of terrorism, disease and financial turmoil. Stronger alliances, the pursuit of peace in the Middle East and elsewhere, nonproliferation, a strong defense and trade expansion are crucial to the success of any president’s foreign policy. The new president, just like the present president, must learn that the nation cannot diminish our role in the world or impose our will on it. There is no short cut to the hard and difficult work of diplomacy. Our security is dependent on it.
  • Trust is crucial to leadership. Some would argue that the election proves just how divided the American people are—politically and ideologically. Bill Clinton did not believe that and neither should the new president.It is true that the public has become more distrustful of democratic institutions. They have become more impatient with the partisanship and gridlock of Washington and blame the president, the Congress and both parties. They voted their distrust of the process and were clearly divided as to who is to blame. But deep down, the American people want the same things for themselves and the nation—equal opportunity for their children to succeed, a decent education and job, the ability to live in dignity and freedom now and in the future, pride in their nation and trust in their leaders. President Clinton understood that. He did a great deal for this nation in improving the lives of ordinary people and for that he deserves great credit. Be he also made a terrible mistake that he tried to hide from the American people. The resulting impeachment process cost the nation dearly in respect for the basic institutions of democracy. The first lesson for a new president is to rebuild that bond of trust with the American people. He must set a clear agenda for the nation. He must be willing to admit mistakes when they happen. He must be willing to give an honest answer to an honest question. He must be willing to make the risks necessary to lead the nation. There are many lessons to be learned but none more important than the trust necessary to effective leadership. As with every other president before him, the next president will bring both his strengths and weaknesses to the job. Our prayer for the new president and for ourselves as a nation is that his strengths will prevail in leading America. But it is difficult to separate the devil and angel in all of us. Only in crisis will we know what part of a president’s character will prevail.But the lessons of the presidency are clear. They stretch from Washington to Clinton. Whether a new president learns those lessons or repeats past mistakes will determine his future legacy and more importantly, whether we succeed or fail as a nation.

LEON PANETTA, is a former congressman and White House Chief of Staff whose column appears regularly in Commentary. Readers may write to him at the Panetta Institute, 100 Campus Center, Building 86E, CSU Monterey Bay, Seaside, CA 93955.


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