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To save America, we need a council of presidents

Make no mistake: America is in extremis. The danger is not the pandemic, foreign enemies, climate change or a public that is intractably divided over virtually every issue. Like 1861, the real issue is the Constitution. Today, it is not about state’s rights. It is more profound.

The question is whether the Constitution and its systems of checks and balances, drafted by the best minds of the 18th century, can weather the demands of the 21st. That system required at least one of three “Cs” – consensus, compromise (encompassing civility) or crisis – to unite a deeply divided nation. None exists today. Indeed, the COVID-19 crisis has disunited the nation. 

Amending the Constitution is politically and practically implausible. No one party will soon gain veto and filibuster proof control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue along with five Supreme Court votes to govern. What is a resolution?

Leadership is always an anemic answer. Yet, that is exactly what is needed, along with the courage to place country over politics despite the costs and risks. Only one American is ever capable of that: the current president.

So, what should President Biden do? It is hubris for anyone to suggest that he or she knows better without having held that office and the huge pressures and monumental decisions that are part of any presidency. Then why not make use of past presidents?

Suppose a council of former presidents were convened at Camp David for an extended period. Jimmy Carter, who might not attend due to age, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump collectively represent 32 years of presidential experience. This would be the strangest of bed fellows. But given the grave nature of this crisis, what is the alternative? 

Objections and criticisms would be torrential. Would Trump even agree to meet? What would be the purpose and what would be the roles of the former presidents? Would both political parties and the public tolerate such a council?

In theory, the role of the presidents would be to coalesce their parties around a set of vitally needed corrective actions. Carter, Clinton, Obama and Bush understand that. If Trump hesitated or declined, Biden has a powerful incentive to offer: a pardon, should one be needed. After all, there is precedent. Gerald Ford arguably lost the 1976 election because he pardoned Richard Nixon in a selfless act that put country over his presidency. 

What would this council do? The purpose would be to create a plan to solve one or two, at most, of the most overarching problems and issues confronting the nation. Infrastructure offers the greatest leverage. 

Congress passed and the president signed the $1.9 trillion infrastructure bill earlier in the year. Build Back Better is currently stalled in Congress. So here is what should be done.

The council could propose a public-private national infrastructure fund. It would roll the $1.9 trillion into the fund and raise an equivalent amount from the private sector with 30-year bond issues, guaranteed by the government, paying 2 percent over the prime interest rate and repaid by user fees, tolls and other revenues. Four trillion dollars would go a long way to modernizing the economy. The fund would have an oversight board, with government and public membership to oversee the investments. The fatal flaw in the current legislation is the absence of oversight.

Investment would be prioritized using the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) grading of America’s infrastructure, among other reports. If the council of presidents stood unanimously behind this plan, it would help ensure successful implementation. And history counts. Following the 1918-1920 Spanish Flu, America experienced its greatest economic boom ever. 

The same idea should be extended to joint meetings with China’s president Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The solution for Taiwan is to combine agreement, not to seek independence, with China’s agreement not to force the issue of reunification either with intimidation or use of force. 

For Russia, NATO could offer potential membership to Russia in exchange for actions to reduce the many tensions and set a moratorium on new accessions as long as those conditions were met. A separate agreement on Ukraine that finally implements the Minsk II accords would be part of that. 

Why would China, Russia, NATO and Ukraine agree to this? The answer is because compromise is in everyone’s best interests. And the president’s job is to make that happen. 

Far-fetched? Perhaps. But what are the other options?

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council and the primary author of “shock and awe.” His latest book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and that World at Large.”

Tags Barack Obama Bill Clinton China Donald Trump George W Bush Jimmy Carter Joe Biden President of the United States US presidents Vladimir Putin

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