What qualities do we need in a president who will get things done?
Change — a perennial theme in presidential campaigns — has taken on a more serious meaning this election season. Of all the promises being put forward by the presidential candidates, change may be the most frequent.
“Change” usually is a word used by candidates who don’t have much Washington experience, but want to package their inexperience as a virtue. But allegiance to “change” is far more important If we want to confront global warming, energy insecurity and peak oil over the next four to eight years — not to mention Iraq, the deficit, health care costs, and several other messes the Bush administration is leaving to its successors — change will be the name of the game. Big change, in fact.
There is wide acknowledgment that Americans need to come together to solve some of these problems. We need a uniter, not a divider, in the White House — for real this time. We have enough common causes, certainly, around which we should rally. What we don’t have is trust.
If you asked most Americans today what one word comes to mind when they think about the White House, “trust” probably would not be their answer. It’s not good sport to take potshots at lame ducks, so I’ll resist the temptation to rant. I’ll just say that the presidency we’ve experienced in the past seven years (think Cheney energy plan, Plame, WMDs, censured science, fired attorneys, erased CIA videos, lost White House emails, etc.) has reinforced the perception that Washington is a culture not only of incompetence, but of flagrant and unabashed dishonesty. It has been a great seven years — not only for Leno, Stewart, and Letterman, but also for the cynicism industry.
But cynicism will not get us through problems as urgent and intractable as global warming. If I were writing the talking points for the candidates, I would have them say this: The first item on the national agenda is not a change in policies; it’s a change in our culture of leadership.
Barack Obama comes close to this theme when he talks about hope. Gary Hart, a colleague and elder statesman for whom I have a great respect, has endorsed Obama because he believes that something big is happening in this race, something is turning, and it’s not just about race and gender. Perhaps it is the passing of the torch to a generation whose spirit is not scarred by the trauma of seeing some of the best and brightest leaders of our time assassinated — something that should not happen anywhere, let alone in America.
The size and energy of Obama’s crowds seem to indicate there’s an appetite for hope — not the place in Arkansas, but what Webster’s defines as “trust, reliance … promise for the future.” We need a “hope platform” from the candidates, with specifics. For starters, I recommend this one from the introduction to the Presidential Climate Action Plan.
To take bold action, the next president will need the support of the American people, and that relationship begins during the campaign. To win their trust, the candidates should pledge allegiance to some old American values that will serve us well in our new challenges.
The candidates should promise a government as it should be: open (PDF), accountable, value-driven, forward-looking, principled, unifying, just, and inclusive. The new administration must reignite the nation’s genius for innovation and its sense of moral obligation to the nation’s future. It must bust barriers (PDF), invent incentives, set goals, and nurture the technologies and industries that are emerging to power a sustainable economy.
The president should cut red tape, practice the paradoxical principle of making government leaner to make it more effective, bring out the best in career civil servants by appointing America’s best people to lead them, and keep the bureaucracy attentive to the nation’s needs and nimble enough to respond.
The president must be the champion of equity and social justice, as well as the CEO’s CEO. He or she must be uncommonly courageous, loyal to principle over politics, and committed to seeking wise counsel outside as well as inside the White House.
The president must have a strong spine and a good compass, thick skin, and sensitivity to the people. He or she must be the leader not only of those who vote, but of those who are disengaged, disenchanted or disenfranchised. He or she must guard the keys of government from special interests and make a commitment to breaking the grip of powerful lobbies that would hold the nation back.
The president must be bullish on the future and skilled behind the bully pulpit. He or she must be a patriot and a citizen of the world, unafraid to ask a lot of the American people and willing for the American people to ask a lot of the President. He or she must be an evangelist for a revival of the American spirit. If we are to remain a great, secure, and prosperous nation, this is the kind of leadership we need.
Call me old-fashioned. Call me a wishful thinker. Call me idealistic. But call me pragmatic, too. I don’t see how we will deal deeply enough and quickly enough with climate change, oil addiction, and the other epochal issues of our day without leaders who deserve our trust, starting with the person in the world’s most powerful job.