Many Americans are mad as hell at our political leaders — both Republican and Democrat — and are giving voice to their anger through the likes of Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders. The anger is understandable. The federal government is paralyzed, unable to tackle any of the major problems facing our country or even accomplish basic functions such as enacting annual budgets for federal departments and agencies. The anger derives equally from governmental ineptitude, arrogance and corruption, and self-serving politicians more concerned with getting re-elected than with the nation’s future.
The next president will face major domestic problems, as well as the challenges posed by Iran, Russia, China, North Korea, terrorism and a Middle East in turmoil. What kind of qualities should we be looking for in a new chief executive? Based on my experience working for eight presidents, of both political parties, here is my take:
• We need a president who understands the system of government bequeathed to us by the founders — and grasps the reality that with power divided among three branches of government, building coalitions and making compromises are the only ways anything lasting can get done. Primal screaming may be good therapy, but it is a poor substitute for practical politics. Arch-conservatives may want little government and arch-liberals may want a lot, but many functions of government are critical to our well-being, and they can be carried out effectively only if Congress and the president work together. Those who believe that compromise is synonymous with selling out or giving up one’s principles need to retake eighth-grade American history. The next president needs to have a core philosophy and set of principles, but he or she also needs to be a pragmatic and skilled political leader — like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
• Our next leader needs to speak truthfully to the American people. “Spinning” has been a part of the political process since ancient Greece, but as mistrustful as most Americans are today of political leaders, the new president must speak candidly and honestly to the people. One reason so many Americans like Trump and Sanders, just as so many liked Ross Perot in 1992, is that both candidates are seen as telling it like it is. People love brutal candor, but that candor is too often detached from reality and responsibility; too many candidates demagogically use divisive rhetoric and make grandiose promises that would be impossible to fulfill. Their rhetoric appeals because so many established politicians are viewed as speaking in platitudes and euphemisms, if not being deceptive or even lying. Yet too many candidates are being just as deceptive and dishonest. We have a lot of problems, and the next president has to be honest with Americans about their seriousness and complexity — and how to tackle them effectively.
• The next president must be resolute. He or she must be very cautious about drawing red lines in foreign policy, but other leaders must know that crossing a red line drawn by the president of the United States will have serious — even fatal — consequences. The public, members of Congress and foreign leaders alike must know that the president’s word is his or her bond, and that promises and commitments will be kept and threats will be carried out. The next president must hold people in government accountable; when programs or initiatives are bungled, senior leaders should be fired. He or she needs to have the courage to act in defiance of public opinion and polls when the national interest requires it.
• Our new leader must be a problem-solver. Recently, we have elected presidents with a conservative agenda or a liberal agenda. This election, how about we look for one whose agenda is just making things work? I realize this is a tall order at a time when most of the candidates are highly ideological, on both the left and the right. But the paralysis within Congress and between Congress and the White House under the past two presidents has been harming the country and putting our future at risk. No wonder so many Americans are pessimistic about the direction of the country. We desperately need a president who will strive tirelessly to identify and work with members of both parties in Congress interested in finding practical solutions to our manifold problems. We need a president who understands that those problems are so complex and so big that overcoming them will require bipartisan support through multiple Congresses and presidencies.
• We need a president who is restrained. Restrained to respect the prerogatives of the other branches of government. Restrained in rhetoric, avoiding unrealistic promises, exaggerated claims of success and dire consequences if his or her initiatives are not adopted exactly as proposed. Restrained in expanding government when so much of what we have works so poorly. Restrained from foreign adventures and from using military force as a first option rather than a last resort. Restrained from questioning the motives of those who disagree and treating them as enemies with no redeeming qualities.
Finally, the most important quality for our next leader at this juncture in our history: The new president must be a true unifier of Americans. The nation is divided over how to deal with challenges such as immigration, the quality of public education, economic inequality, our role abroad and more. Too many presidential candidates of all stripes are working overtime to deepen our divisions, to turn us against one another, to play to our fears. They are prepared to place all that holds us together as one people, as Americans, at risk for their own ambitions. The next president must lead in restoring civility to our political process. We must hope that the president we elect next year will again and again remind all Americans of our common destiny, and that our fate as a nation and as a people is bound up with one another. Our new leader should appeal, in President Abraham Lincoln’s words, to “the better angels of our nature.”
Robert Gates served as secretary of defense in the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.