Robert M. Gates recently wrote an opted in the Washington Post titled “The Kind of President We Need.” Gates served as secretary of defense in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.


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 (I-Vt.). 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 reelected 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.

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