Beyond Winning the Ability To Govern

San Francisco Chronicle, November 9, 2008
By Leon E. Panetta

All of America, regardless of party, can take great pride in the fact that our democracy has finally delivered on the promise of our forefathers of a nation of, by and for all people.

But the new president will have little time to sit back and enjoy his victory. The question is no longer whether he can win. The only relevant question now is whether he can govern.

President Barack Obama will walk into the Oval Office and face some of the worst crises that have ever confronted a modern U.S. commander in chief:

An economy in deep recession, a record deficit of almost $1 trillion, two intractable wars, the war on terror, an energy crisis that threatens our security and our planet, inadequate health care coverage, exploding entitlement costs in Social Security and Medicare, failed immigration policies and an education system that is not meeting the needs of a competitive global world.

Throughout our history, great presidents understood the call to duty and embraced their responsibility to act decisively to preserve the nation. They had both a vision to inspire and mobilize the people and the common sense, pragmatism and political ability to get things done.

What does all of this mean for the 44th president of the United States?

TRUST: First and foremost, Obama will never be able to confront any of these crises unless he maintains and respects the trust of the American people.

Unfortunately, President Bush too often took that trust for granted by acting as if somehow he was not accountable to the will of the people. The result was a failed presidency. The greatest occupational hazard for any president is isolation – from the people, from the issues, from reality.

President Obama must never surrender his humanity to the trappings of power. If he preserves the unique bond he has established with those who elected him by being honest with them, he will not only help unify the country, he will also mobilize the most powerful weapon a president has in our democracy – the voice of the people.

WHITE HOUSE TEAM: Because no new president any longer has the benefit of a prolonged honeymoon, he must be prepared to hit the ground running the day after inauguration. That means he should quickly move to put his top White House team in place. He has already appointed his chief of staff and should also get a national security adviser in place. By selecting his key White House aides early, he will have the support team he needs to make crucial personnel, Cabinet and policy decisions.

ECONOMY AND NATIONAL SECURITY: The two most important issues the new president will immediately face are the threats to our economy and our national security. The $700 billion rescue package for the banks has virtually put the president in charge of the credit systems in the nation. That means that the president’s economic team – the secretaries of the Treasury, commerce and labor along with the directors of the Office of Management and Budget and the economic council – should be named early to assure a smooth transition on economic policies. The same is true for the national security team – the secretaries of state and defense, the U.N. ambassador, the head of the CIA and the national security adviser.

BIPARTISANSHIP: Obama has promised to change the partisanship and gridlock in Washington.

That will not be easy because both parties have been locked in bitter trench-warfare for more than a decade. But the effort must be made. The first step would be to appoint Republicans to key Cabinet positions. The new president also will have to reach out to the bipartisan leadership in Congress and seek its advice and counsel on key issues. Restoring trust between the president and the leaders is crucial to any hope for bipartisan cooperation.

FIRST 100 DAYS: And finally, the new president must begin to plan for the first 100 days of his presidency and beyond. The constraints of a weakened economy and deficits will limit his ability to deliver on all the promises made during the campaign. He will have to set priorities and determine what issues he will act on first, and what policies can be changed by executive orders. These early actions are crucial to defining his presidency.

History will forever recall the election of 2008 as one of great change. But to change is to govern. Obama has shown that he had the leadership to run one of the most effective campaigns in recent memory. But his ultimate legacy as president will be determined by his leadership to govern.

LEON PANETTA represented the Central Coast of California in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1977 until 1993, when he went on to become the director of the Office of Management and Budget. He was White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton from 1995 to 1997. He now directs the Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy at Cal State Monterey Bay. Contact us at