Remembering Tom Coburn's quiet persistence
Next American president should have this important qualification
The Democrats running for president have an abundance of interesting ideas, some good and some bad, about how to make our country a better place. Their proposals include providing universal health care, lowering the cost of higher education, fixing our national infrastructure, reforming our broken immigration laws, changing current tax policies, and more. Ideas are great, especially aspirational ones that demonstrate the nuts and bolts of a policy agenda that also looks toward the next generations.
Great presidents, in almost all cases, have had a vision for the future of the United States. They put forth ideas that motivate and inspire the American people. However, ideas are not enough. As we have learned, absolutely nothing can be accomplished by working through the system without management expertise, knowledge of how the different federal government branches interact, and the ability to put together a high performance team of professionals that can actually get things done.
I know from my own experience. When I moved from being a member of Congress to being secretary of the Agriculture Department in the 1990s, there was a steep learning curve. I went from managing a small legislative office with a couple dozen staffers to managing an agency with nearly 100,000 employees. I realized right away that I clearly could not be effective in getting anything done without understanding the nuance and complexity of the programs we were administering, and developing a high performance team was my ticket to gaining that deeper knowledge.
That same team could advise me about these policy challenges. When I came to a decision about what to do, they could implement my agenda. I knew I could work with Congress closely in the process, supported by my team. Anything I wanted to get done took skills and patience. That was at the Agriculture Department. The true complexity of managing the overall operations of the entire government is exponentially much more difficult.
It is incredible that in the campaign process, where some fundamental and complex questions of national policy are debated, candidates for president are rarely asked about their qualifications for managing a large complicated bureaucracy. If you cannot organize a government that works to get things done, then you cannot be an effective president.
Reporters love to ask about proposals and conflicts, but they rarely probe into whether the candidate has the necessary skills and background to actually move an agenda. Leadership requires both ideas for the future as well as management skills and knowledge of the system to get those ideas adopted by Congress. It would be most helpful to voters if the national media pressed our candidates on this question as a matter of routine.
I am not saying that being a lawmaker is a disqualifier for the duties of president, but all candidates should speak to their management and administrative experience. I, along with millions of other citizens, want someone to actually get things done for the American people. A great president would restore their confidence in our government by standing ready to push policy. It is not enough to dream great ideas, although that is a necessary part of leadership, but those ideas must be actionable. A president and his or her team must have the skills to make that happen.
Dan Glickman served as United States secretary of agriculture under President Clinton and represented Kansas in Congress for 18 years. He is now a vice president of the Aspen Institute and a senior fellow with the Bipartisan Policy Center. You can follow him on Twitter @DanRGlickman.