Harsh Domestic and International Realities Leading to Greater Public Engagement in 2004 Presidential Election

April 30, 2004

The dangers the United States faces in the war on terrorism globally and domestically are forcing Americans to become increasingly engaged in the political process during this election year, according to a panel that spoke at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum Friday. The panel was the kickoff to the annual Dean’s Conference that this year focused on the presidential elections.

“The good news is that the bad news has brought the public to the table,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research for the People and the Press.

Despite this greater engagement, the panelists generally agreed that reaching a consensus on how to resolve the issues facing the US and, by consequence, deciding the next presidency would be not be easy for the public.

The difficulties the country faces are, in part, the product of a world in transition ushered in by radical globalization and dramatic improvements in information technology, participants said. Additionally, the end of the Cold War caused the US to emerge as the sole superpower. Yet this country’s vulnerabilities became apparent when the World Trade Center towers were attacked and demolished on September 11, 2001.

David Gergen, Public Service Professor of Public Leadership and director of the Center for Public Leadership, said that while the country is more engaged, it is more polarized than it has ever been. There is a “deepening unhappiness and confusion” about where we are headed, he said. The upshot is that the “red” states are becoming redder and “blue” states are becoming bluer, he said.

“Instead of laughing with each other, we are laughing at each other,” said Gergen.

Gergen attributed this phenomenon to the prosperity of the 90’s that psychologically prepared the US for a “golden age” in the 21st century. Instead, the new century brought on the attacks of 9/11, corporate scandals on a major scale and the specter of outsourcing American jobs. Unfortunately, politicians are failing in their role as leaders by not offering answers or strategies for dealing with these new realities, he said.

Kohut agreed on the failure of political leadership from both parties but said the country can still unite.

“This country is still capable of consensus,” he said.

John Sununu, Roy M. Barbara Goodman Visiting Professor of Practice in Public Service and former Governor of New Hampshire, said the issues that confront the American public are the product of a world in transition that has witnessed a revolution in information, communication and transportation. Despite the mudslinging and trivializing that surfaces in the daily campaign coverage, the candidates’ stances on the larger issues will be the ones that determine who gets elected President, he said.

Richard Darman, chairman and partner of The Carlyle Group, AES Corporation; former director of the US office of Management and Budget; former Deputy Secretary of the US Treasury; and former Assistant US Secretary of Commerce, said that for any president to succeed he needs to stick to the things that really matter to Americans. To him personally, that means the capacity to dream bold dreams and to provide sufficient resources to make them reality.

“We can dream great dreams but we will not succeed if we do not apply the resources needed to succeed,” said Darman.

Executive Dean Bonnie Newman moderated the panel.

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