This week on Facing the Future, we got a rare opportunity to speak about leadership in a time of crisis with a real scholar of presidential politics: Professor David Gergen of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Gergen served as a White House advisor to four US presidents: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. He has also been a long time television commentator on both PBS and CNN and has a new book coming out later this spring titled “Hearts Touched by Fire: How Great Leaders are Made.”
Given the multiple crises now facing Washington’s policymakers, I asked Gergen for his advice on managing such a challenging agenda. Both Concord Coalition policy director Tori Gorman and national field director Phil Smith joined me for the entire program.
The administrations in which Gergen served all contended with multiple foreign policy and domestic crises, but he says what we are seeing now is unprecedented. Gergen says from his perspective the Biden White House started strong, but has faltered since last summer. He says it’s partially because of a confluence of crises, but also due to poor execution.
“Any White House can be very effective at handling one crisis, and maybe even two. But when you’ve got four or five that are occurring simultaneously, it vastly overloads the system,” said Gergen. "It is very, very hard. It’s like a juggler. FDR used to call himself the juggler. When you’ve got two or three, you can juggle but when you get four or five, you drop a ball, then you drop another ball. It’s almost inevitable. But what was least expected yet has had the most telling effect on the public was the handling of the Afghan crisis. Biden’s policies have been better than his execution, and the Afghan situation is very emblematic of that. It just left a very sour taste in people’s mouths – especially in the military community – about how many people were left behind. There is a moral stain that came with that that is really, really hard to eradicate.”
Gergen does give the Biden administration credit, however, for a more deft handling of the Russia-Ukraine crisis than the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. On the domestic front, Gergen actually sees the failure of Biden’s signature Build Back Better climate and social spending legislation - due to opposition from West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin - as a positive development that can point Congress and the administration in the direction of more prudent fiscal and budgetary policy.
“We need a healthy debate, and let the progressives have their say and see whose arguments prevail,” said Gergen. “I am of the school that believes that a lot of people may look back on the Democratic side and say that Senator Manchin was trying to do us a favor. I think between here and the midterms, I would get something done on getting the price of gasoline down, get something to help people get back to work. So many restaurants and everything are still in deep trouble because they can’t find the people to work and run them. Do something to get those problems solved. Just focus on the two or three things you can get done now, try to get through the midterms and try to keep your power.”
On the broader question of leadership, Gergen says it is time for the baby boomer generation (like me) to exit the stage and make room for new leaders. While Gergen says nothing will come close to the humble leadership of the World War II generation, he sees a lot of hope in the younger generation of activists – some military veterans from recent conflicts, others pushing on issues such as income inequality and environmental sustainability.
“I see a growing number of really interesting, sparky, honest, brave people who are getting involved in our politics,” said Gergen. “Some coming from the left, like AOC [Rep. Alexandra Ocasio Cortez (D-NY)], as much as I disagree with her politics I like people like that to be in the mix. But we also have the veterans who are coming back now from Afghanistan and Iraq who are taking off their uniforms just like WWII veterans and trying to get into the public arena and running for office. I am very involved in a group to get young veterans to run for Congress. We now have 25 members of the House of Representatives in a caucus made up of young veterans from both sides of the aisle. They sign a pledge to work across the aisle before they go in. That is what we need more of. People like that who are going to motivate the country and make people feel like this is really important. It’s really important to the future of your grandkids.”
Hear more on Facing the Future. I host the program each week on WKXL in Concord N.H., and it is also available via podcast. Join me and my guests as we discuss issues relating to national fiscal policy with budget experts, industry leaders, and elected officials. Past broadcasts are available here. You can subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or with an RSS feed. Follow Facing the Future on Facebook, and watch videos from past episodes on The Concord Coalition YouTube channel.