Five Points for the Next President

Monterey County Herald, September 7, 2008
By Leon E. Panetta
Following the political conventions, the nation now enters the final eight weeks of the campaign for president. This is the most serious decision that we make in our democracy. What happens Nov. 4 will determine not just who our leader will be for the next four years but what the future of America will be in the 21st century.

Unfortunately, the nature of the modern political campaign stresses everything but the issues. It largely focuses on personality over policy, the negative over the positive, and attack ads over serious debate. It makes it difficult if not impossible for the average voter to make an informed decision. From primaries to conventions, from campaign events to media coverage, it all resembles more “American Idol” than the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Party conventions have largely lost any meaningful political role other than to serve as a backdrop for talking heads. The Republican convention in St. Paul at one point became a fundraiser for victims of Hurricane Gustav. Denver, my 10th Democratic convention, was a long series of speeches lost in the noise of thousands of milling delegates and 15,000 roaming reporters. Conventions that fought and challenged party platforms and decided candidates are a thing of the past.

The primaries are now more about personalities than positions. In the historic Democratic primary between the first African-American and woman candidates for president, the media paid more attention to the caricatures of each and their spouses than how they would respond to the crises of our times.

On the Republican side, just recently, when John McCain made his surprise selection of Sarah Palin as his vice presidential choice, he almost guaranteed that the election would be more about personality than issues. The Alaska governor, a modern-day Annie Oakley, is clearly full of surprises but has a record of outgunning most of her opponents. In her last race for governor against a Republican turned Independent and Tony Knowles, a popular former governor, the former Republican told the New York Times: “Tony and I looked at each other and it was, like, this isn’t about policy or Alaska issues, this is about people’s most basic instincts: ‘I like you and you make me feel good.'” So much for issues!

Another reason that issues are lost in the campaign is that the candidates themselves often promise more than they can deliver. The public has become skeptical of presidents who present long lists of costly proposals that appeal to different constituencies but are rarely passed by the Congress. While both candidates are promising to break political gridlock in Washington, the reality is that they will face many of the same obstacles that confronted past presidents. In addition, a new president will inherit the largest federal deficit in history.

In a recent report issued by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which I co-chair, the tax and spending policies of each of the candidates total close to $500 billion in one year alone. While each promises to pay attention to the fiscal implications of their agenda, both fall short in paying for their promises. Neither, unfortunately, has made a strong commitment to deficit reduction. Whether they like it or not, that is a bitter reality they will have to face.

The challenge for every voter is to cut through the hype, the hoopla, the promises, the personalities to the reality of the presidency. The fact is that it is more important to know what a president will do with the power he has than what he promises to do with the power he doesn’t have.

Under the Constitution, presidents have the executive power to make a real difference in our lives. President Bush used that power to go to war, to torture, to establish Guantanamo, to expand executive authority. He failed to use it to promote competence, fiscal responsibility or constitutional safeguards. His legacy in history rests on how he used or abused these powers.

Voters are entitled to know how the next president will exercise the power that comes with the Oval Office. It would be refreshing to hear the candidates commit to the following:

1. A Competent and Efficient Government. A president has the power to appoint the best and most qualified people, not just political hacks. Government already has countless programs that are not being competently managed. A new president would do wonders if he would commit to efficiently and effectively delivering the services that the public is entitled to. That kind of change does not require legislation; it requires leadership.

2. A Fiscally Responsible Budget. The president has the power to put together the federal budget. While the Congress can approve or reject elements of it, the fact is that the executive sets the parameters for debate. If it is a fiscally responsible budget that reduces the deficit and pays for new initiatives, it puts pressure on the Congress to follow that example.

3. A Strong Commander in Chief. Strong presidents are those who recognize and respect the awesome power of their responsibility as commander in chief. As John Kennedy said in his inaugural address, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” That takes both wisdom and courage. War should never be pre-emptive but only used as a last resort.

4. Preserve, Protect and Defend the Constitution. The oath administered to the president requires that he solemnly swear to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” The next president must make clear that he will respect that oath and do nothing to undermine the separation of powers or the Bill of Rights.

5. Set a Limited Agenda. To be effective, a president has to focus his time and efforts on a limited set of objectives. With the number of crises confronting the next president, the reality is that he must have the discipline to concentrate on three or four important goals. In the light of the gridlock in Washington, it would be a major achievement if the next president could pass an energy plan, a health care initiative and immigration reform.

There is no question but that American voters are hungry for change. But they also want straight talk. They are tired of a dysfunctional Washington, but they are also tired of campaigns that focus on everything but the reality of what the next president will be able to deliver.

Both the candidates are good men. I believe this election will turn on which is more honest with the American people about what he can really accomplish.
LEON PANETTA was White House Chief of Staff in the Clinton administration and a Central Coast congressman.  His column appears every other month in opinion. Readers may write to him at the Panetta Institute, 100 Campus Center, Building 86E, CSU Monterey Bay, Seaside, CA 93955.


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