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Credentials for the American President

Clint Reilly

History invents Presidents who rise to the challenges of the moment.

President Theodore H. Roosevelt was both a reformer and an environmentalist. After the unchecked industrial growth of the nineteenth century, Roosevelt — who became President in 1901 when President William McKinley was assassinated — created an innovative public policy he termed “regulation”. He said, “we hold that government should not conduct the business of the nation, but that it should exercise such supervision as will ensure its being conducted in the interests of the nation.” Under TR, the federal government instituted tough government regulation as a tool to protect and promote the public interest.

“Teddy” Roosevelt also was the first environmental president. “The conservation of our natural resources and their proper use constitute the fundamental problem of our national life”, proclaimed Roosevelt. In his eight years in the White House, he designated 5 National Parks and 150 National Forests and he provided federal protection for 230 million acres — equivalent to the land mass of the East Coast states of America.

By the 1930’s, the American economy was gravely ill. A terrible crisis enveloped the country and 25% of the nation was unemployed. In 1932, another Roosevelt was elected President. “The rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed through their own incompetence ….They have no vision and where there is no vision the people perish”, proclaimed Franklin Roosevelt in his First Inaugural Address. FDR mobilized the federal government to mount a massive program to lift up the average American called “The New Deal.” Federal agencies were created to guarantee income to the elderly (Social Security), subsidize America’s bankrupt farmers (the Farm Mortgage Act), employ workers (The Works Progress Administration), give loans to buy houses (Homeowners Loan Act) and regulate the stock market (Securities Exchange Commission). Franklin Roosevelt redefined the mandate of government. The federal government became banker, employer, regulator, protector and provider. The welfare state was born.

This agenda perpetuated democratic power in the White House for decades. Harry Truman stumped for a “Fair Deal.” John F. Kennedy envisioned a “New Frontier.” Lyndon Johnson pounded the podium for a “Great Society.”

In the 2008 presidential election, history may once again reshape the agenda of presidential politics. As examples, consider Al Gore, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. Rarely do presidential candidates have a real track record of leadership on critical national issues. These three are exceptions.

Al Gore is leading the international dialogue on global warming in 2007.

Last week the former Vice President received the Nobel Prize for his pioneering work on global warming. The Nobel Prize and an Oscar for his film “An Inconvenient Truth” enables Gore to focus world-wide attention on the climate change crisis. His leadership on the issue has given a natural impetus to a possible, but unlikely, second run for the presidency.

In 1993, Hillary Clinton led the search for a solution to the growing health care crisis facing the nation. She was ahead of her time. Fourteen years later the unsolved problem has risen to the top of the national agenda and the Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, has proven credentials as a health care pioneer.

If Republicans nominate Rudy Guiliani as their presidential candidate, it will most certainly be a response to the challenges to national security raised by terrorism, 9/11, and the Iraq War. The attack on the Twin Towers in New York cemented former Mayor Guiliani’s image as a tough leader who confronted terrorism first hand.

These three Presidential candidates have each earned credibility on one of the three mega issues of the early twentieth century: global climate change, health care and international terrorism. Which issue is most critical to America’s future? History has a way of dictating the credentials needed by the next American President.

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