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  HOME | Opinion (Click here for more)

Abshire & Howard: Going REALLY Big...
As US President Barack Obama prepares to give his State of the Union speech Tuesday evening, Ambassador David Abshire and Christopher Howard of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress have some good advice for the President: "Go REALLY Big! It means taking a step back from politics as usual, taking risks, and reaching across deep divisions. It means working across party lines on foundational issues that are not partisan in nature, so that partisan competition can become healthy and constructive once again."

By David M. Abshire
& Christopher O. Howard

The President hit the trifecta with his second Inaugural Address, speaking as both statesman and policy wonk while still throwing plenty of red meat to his partisan base. This leaves him with a dilemma for the State of the Union address. The standard choice is between statesman and Santa Claus. If he tries the first, laying out a unifying vision for the country while including sufficient fillips to mollify the base, it will end up being little more than a pale reflection of the inaugural speech. If he opts for the second, offering the standard long list of programs and bouquets to cement relationships with every corner of his support structure, it would be a clear step backwards in terms of national vision and leadership.

We suggest a third option: Go Big! No, not what passes for “Big” in Washington these days. Pre-speech publicity suggests the President is planning to “go big” in the traditional sense. We mean really BIG! We mean staking a claim for being a transformational President by tackling our nation’s greatest challenge. It probably won’t happen, but it would look something like this if it did...

The President could start with one of his teaching moments: As a nation, the United States faces challenges in virtually every field. As Americans, we don’t accept these problems as intractable, but they are very stubborn. We’ve been struggling with them for decades. Whether we are Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals, every time we tackle one of these problems anew, we start with enthusiasm, vigor, and optimism. We end up with varying degrees of frustration, anger, and disappointment. As a result, we are starting to ask if our system even works anymore.

The U.S. Constitution is the most stable, longest lasting, and most consistent model of participatory government in the annals of humankind. It works just fine. But you wouldn’t know it by looking at the U.S. government. That’s because the Constitution is just a model – a set of moral and organizational principles – not a functioning system. The first session of Congress was dominated by the need to create the functional machinery of governance. For nearly a century thereafter, Congress and the President continued to refine this machinery, evolving our system to meet the needs of a changing nation, incorporate the lessons of prior triumphs and tragedies, and capture and apply the value of new knowledge, technology, and capability.

But our current machinery of governance – from the Congressional committee structure, through arcane legislative and regulatory processes, to an Executive Branch with scores of Departments, Agencies, and Offices – is largely the same in form or process as it was in the 1870s and ‘80s. It has grown, but not really evolved. We’ve gone from 45 million Americans to 315 million, from the telegraph to cell phones, and from stagecoaches to jumbo jets, but our government infrastructure remains absolutely state of the art, for 1875. We have been reaping the results of this stultification for at least 50-60 years, as the federal government has become more and more sclerotic.

The last time our government even took a stab at this issue was in the aftermath of the Great Depression and World War II. We like to remember that period as a time of great national unity, but the economic differences between liberal and conservative were as great or greater than they are today, and the country was also split along regional lines and between isolationists and internationalists. By many measures, the differences were as great as they had been at any time since the Civil War. The one thing American leaders were able to agree on was that the machinery of government was not up to the task of building the nation for the future – whatever that future was going to look like.

The House and Senate created the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, co-chaired by Progressive Republican (and isolationist) Senator Robert LaFollette, Jr. of Wisconsin and conservative Democrat (and internationalist) Congressman “Mike” Monroney of Oklahoma. They produced the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, the most thorough and comprehensive reform and reorganization of Congress in history.

This initiative was followed up by an invitation from Democratic President Harry Truman to his Republican predecessor, Herbert Hoover, to lead a two-year project to reform and reorganize the Executive Branch. This first Hoover Commission, along with a second that was launched by President Eisenhower, produced a series of comprehensive reports, and made hundreds of specific reform recommendations, more than two-thirds of which were eventually implemented. By any measure, Hoover’s efforts are the benchmark for a Presidential Commission addressing a broad, undefined challenge like systemic reform and reorganization.

We have identified two critical success factors for the Hoover Commissions. The first was Hoover’s standing and experience as a former President. Though not well-liked by much of the public, and still an active, partisan Republican, Hoover had already set a standard for former Presidents that lasts to this day: the national interest, and the interests of the Office of the Presidency, always come first. In addition, because he had been President, he was uniquely qualified to view his task from a whole-of-government perspective. This allowed him to ask the right questions and frame his recommendations in a balanced, constructive manner. The end result was that Hoover was the singular voice on the subject that could not be ignored – a status no successor leading a similar commission has ever had.

The second critical success factor was Hoover’s ability to conduct business largely out of the spotlight. Unless the people whose experience, expertise, and insight are critical to success feel confident they can speak freely, without it coming back to ruin their careers sometime in the future, this effort would have failed. These are circumstances where too much sunshine could impede full disclosure, stifle open minds, blunt critical discussion, and even sabotage success.

These historical initiatives are the very definition of “Going Big.” They laid the foundation for domestic growth, international leadership, and Cold War victory. We must learn from them if we hope to have a second “American Century.” They are the key to building a 21st Century government infrastructure that properly aligns Constitutional principles, national needs, and the best of modern technology and management practice. They are also almost impossible to imagine. The kind of agreement among leaders that they would require is all but inconceivable in today’s Washington.

It may be cliché that the first step to recovery is to admit there is a problem, but in the current environment, that is not only the first step, it may be the hardest one. It means admitting we are all on the wrong track. It means taking a step back from politics as usual, taking risks, and reaching across deep divisions. It does not mean becoming “bipartisan.” It means working across party lines on foundational issues that are not partisan in nature, so that partisan competition can become healthy and constructive once again. It means thinking outside the box, starting with a clean sheet of paper, and aligning needs and resources strategically. It is the epitome of going really BIG!

Dr. David M. Abshire is president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress and president of the Richard Lounsbery Foundation of New York. He is also Vice Chairman of the powerhouse think-tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), which he co-founded in 1962. A graduate of West Point, he served in the Korean War, before receiving his Ph.D., with honors, in history from Georgetown University, where he also served as an adjunct professor at its School of Foreign Service. He was Assistant Secretary of State for Congressional Relations (1970-1973), head of the National Security Group under President Reagan (1980), U.S. ambassador to NATO (1983-1987), and special counselor to President Reagan (1987).

Christopher O. Howard is a Senior Advisor to David Abshire, co-authors a series of political commentaries with him, and edits the Triumphs and Tragedies series for the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He holds a B.A. from Princeton and a Masters from the University of Cape Town.


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