This book is a guide for governing in an exceptionally complicated moment for America. That moment is defined by not only the difficulties of confronting a global pandemic and its aftermath but also a range of long-standing predicaments that have tended to complicate each other. The thicket of our governing challenges is now so dense that the definition and prioritization of problems has become difficult, and our leaders clearly need some help.
The president of the United States is not the only leader who requires such help. But setting priorities for policymaking at the national level often does fall to the government’s chief executive, and the beginning of a presidential term in any case offers a convenient occasion to focus on the nation’s needs.
And yet, the intense polarization that has characterized our 21st-century politics and the bitterly acrimonious culture war that has increasingly deformed our national life make it difficult to rise to that occasion. When we think about the country’s challenges, we are all tempted to think in partisan terms.
To resist that temptation, even if only a little, we at the American Enterprise Institute have given the authors of this volume a peculiar task. We asked nine of our scholars (though we easily could have called on dozens more) to offer guidance in their broad areas of expertise that the president might find useful in 2021 and beyond. But we intentionally asked them to do this while the presidential election of 2020 whirls in the background, and so before we know who will win it. They therefore have to offer advice not to Donald Trump or Joe Biden but to America’s president. They have to consider not the objectives of a Republican or a Democrat but the needs of the nation.
This book is thus an experiment in shooting straight in crooked times. Its purpose is not to ignore the political culture and partisan atmosphere of this moment in our politics; no serious policy analysis or proposal for reform could ignore those. Rather, the point is precisely to take full account of those but correct for them as far as possible, to try to filter out the clatter and think about those problems that will need to be taken up by whoever is elected president.
"This book is thus an experiment in shooting straight in crooked times."
One consequence of that aspiration for clarity is that this book does not seek to touch on every policy domain or offer advice to each government agency or cabinet department. In the course of their work, our scholars engage with essentially every policy challenge that confronts our public officials. They have views they are eager to share on all those fronts. But in this collection, by stepping back a little from the general din, we aim to emphasize a few key issues that should be particularly high on the country’s agenda.
Another consequence—indeed, a particular benefit—of this approach is that it can enable us to take stock of how changing circumstances might require changes in the two parties’ long-standing to-do lists. The era we are living through is a time of reconsideration and, in some respects, even political realignment. It would be easy to miss that by viewing our politics through familiar ideological lenses alone. This period is raising some questions about the value of those very lenses, so it may be best judged apart from them—in ways that leave some room for reprioritizing core aims, if also for reaffirming core values.
All of that, however, is not to say that this volume’s authors do not begin with their own ideals and priorities. The American Enterprise Institute has no party line, but its scholars share a broad disposition. We begin from a love of our country and an appreciation of the need to cherish what has made it lovely. We value America’s capacity to foster the preconditions for human flourishing—strong families and communities, social order and equal justice under law, dignity embodied in honest work and active citizenship, prosperity made possible by competition and innovation, compassion reified in the commitment to opportunity for all, and security realized through a robust advancement of America’s ideals and a tenacious defense of its interests.
These core principles leave a lot of room for debate about particular policy courses, and AEI scholars sometimes disagree with one another.
That much is evident even in this collection. But they always offer honest advice, rooted in those core ideals and informed by deep expertise and experience. That is what we seek to make available here to the president sworn into office in 2021.
For all these reasons, the proposals in this book do not involve easy measures sure to make the president popular. They point to those challenges that will be hardest to confront but irresponsible to avoid. As you will see from both the subjects taken up and the mode in which they are tackled, these chapters aim to help the president think deeply about not only the means of government but also its aims.
Our politics now has real trouble coming to terms with the American public’s actual concerns and priorities and real difficulty conceiving of policy tools by which public-spirited objectives might be best achieved. This is not a new problem, of course. In Federalist 62, James Madison identified it as perennial:
A good government implies two things: first, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained. Some governments are deficient in both these qualities; most governments are deficient in the first. I scruple not to assert, that in American governments too little attention has been paid to the last. The federal Constitution avoids this error; and what merits particular notice, it provides for the last in a mode which increases the security for the first.
This remains true of our Constitution, but it is not always true of our government in practice. In this moment, our public officials need help satisfying both of Madison’s criteria for good government. Our hope is to offer some assistance in both regards.
The job of the president of the United States is never easy. The burdens of responsibility laid on that office are unmatched in the world. But the potential to do good is very great. To make the most of that potential requires careful prioritization, balanced judgment, foresight, and political courage. How the executive might cultivate and deploy these in the months and years to come is the subject of each chapter that follows and this volume as a whole.