At the time, Washington pundits all pooh-poohed about hidden skeletons that must have ended his hopes, but when I talked to him in the weeks after his decision, I heard of a summer 2006 dinner with friends during which he laid out the challenges the next president would face—and how they amounted to an impossible task: Why would anyone sane want to take that on? North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, the economy, healthcare, education, oil, hurricanes, and on and on.
Indeed, a quick scan of the weekend papers makes this seem like a particularly tumultuous time: The ongoing (and definitely not finished) collapse of the financial system that has given so much prosperity to so many, the rise of violence of Afghanistan, ongoing tensions with Iran and uncertainty in Iraq, an ascendent Russia, gasoline that may spike to $5 a gallon in some places in the wake of Hurricane Ike’s Gulf Coast destruction. Add to all of this the creeping crises of a healthcare system that covers too little for far too few for too much cost, a nation education system that doesn’t, an entitlement program in Social Security and Medicare that’s headed for broke, and climate change that threatens to upend whole ecosystems at a rate far faster than predicted, and you have a recipe for a tough four years ahead.
Upon leaving office, Robert Rubin, the banker who served as Clinton’s Treasury secretary, wrote a lengthy memoir entitled In an Uncertain World. Alan Greenspan, when he left office, contributed The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World. These book titles, in a previous era, would have belonged to a general, secretary of State, or a secretary of Defense, but in the modern economic climate the most uncertain and turbulent worlds are those of the financial markets—witness today’s giant headlines about Wall Street’s “gravest crisis in modern times” (Washington Post) and how the “American financial system was shaken to its core” (Wall Street Journal).
Reich coined the phrase “the Anxious Class” to describe the millions of workers who understood that their continued paychecks were contingent on the vagaries of a now-global economy. There are a lot of anxious people today.
We’re living in a time in which not even glaciers are moving at a glacial rate of change: Both the Helheim and Jakobshavn glaciers in Greenland are moving at more than 14 kilometers a year, or about an inch a minute—fast enough that you can see them move.
Oh, and on top of all of this, let’s tack on the news that President Bush is punting to the next president a half-trillion-dollar deficit next year, as opposed to the $128 billion surplus he inherited in 2001.
Marjorie Williams, the Vanity Fair political correspondent whose life was cut short by cancer in 2005, wrote that the failures that really matter in Washington happen so slowly that no one gets blamed for them. And such is the place we find ourselves: with creeping crises in education, healthcare, energy, immigration, and basic day-to-day economics that aren’t the fault of any one person, one party, or even one branch of government. Once identified, though, those crises are all of ours to meet and fix, but the leadership to address these creeping crises over the next decade will be the responsibility, first and foremost, of the next president, whoever that may be.
The next president won’t be able to punt all of these decisions farther down the road, as President Bush has done with so many of the issues in front of him.
As Winston Churchill said in 1936, “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, or soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.”
The first question for the next president will be: Whom should I disappoint? Every group is expecting its issue to be the number-one issue on the nation’s agenda come January, from national security to the economy to healthcare to balancing the budget to education to energy and climate change.
Too often, though, the sad truth of Washington is that the next president will likely be able to tackle only one item in his first term—whether that’s healthcare, entitlements, the economy, or energy. President Clinton tried to do healthcare; President George W. Bush tried to do Social Security. Both fell short.
So which of these problems, so interconnected that they appear a Gordian knot, would McCain try to untangle first? Which would Obama choose?
Only one thing’s clear: They have to do something big.
The rolling average of RealClearPolitics’ right-track/wrong-track poll shows that more than 70 percent of Americans believe the country is heading in the wrong direction, compared with just 20 percent who think we’re on the right track; that 20 percent, by the way, is far less than the 34 percent of Americans who believe in UFOs.
There’s a good argument to be made that whoever wins November 4 will end up as only a one-term president because of the unpopular choices he’ll have to make to right the ship of state.
Given all of that as the backdrop, I’m wary of anyone who looks at the Oval Office in today’s environment and says, “Yes, I want that.” That’s why we should elect Mark Warner president this fall: He’s already proven he’s more sane than either John McCain or Barack Obama by choosing to forgo the office.
When Warner dropped out, Slate’s John Dickerson wrote, “What should surprise us all is that anyone stays in.”