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Leon Panetta on Leadership and Crisis

Linda Strean November 4, 2015
photo - Leon Panetta and Mark Baldassare

In 50 years of public life, Leon Panetta said he has learned that “in a democracy, you can govern either by leadership or by crisis.”

“If for some reason the leadership is not there, then we will govern by crisis,” said Panetta, who has served as US secretary of defense, CIA director, presidential chief of staff, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and director for the Office of Civil Rights—as well as representing California’s Central Coast in Congress for 16 years.

In a wide-ranging conversation with Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO, Panetta touched on global flashpoints, presidential politics, dysfunction in Washington, and electoral reform in California.

His main criticism of Washington today? “Too much in Washington is done on a crisis-by-crisis basis.” He contrasted last week’s budget agreement—a temporary solution to the threat of default and government shutdown—to earlier budget negotiations that involved two presidents, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, making tough trade-offs with members of Congress. Leadership requires taking risks and that can mean paying a political price—as the elder Bush believes he did in the 1992 election.

Panetta said that as CIA director, he saw President Obama demonstrate leadership in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, an operation fraught with risk. Despite good evidence that the al-Qaeda leader was in the compound—including confirmation that the laundry hung on the clothesline matched up with bin Laden’s family—there was no certainty he was there.

A majority of members of National Security Council thought the mission was too risky. The president asked Panetta’s advice. Panetta told him about a method he had used to make decisions as a member of Congress: “If I had a tough issue I’d ask myself, what if I asked an ordinary citizen in my district, ‘If you knew what I know, what would you do on this issue?’ And I think that if I told an ordinary citizen that we had the best evidence on the location of bin Laden since Tora Bora, then I think the average citizen would say, ‘You have to do this.’”

The next morning Obama made the decision. The mission was a go.

“Tough decision. Leadership. Taking a risk,” said Panetta. “But ultimately, that’s what it takes to be president of the United States. That’s what it takes to be a member of Congress.

Other highlights from Panetta’s remarks:

  • Of all the global threats, what does he worry about most? “Cyber-attack.”
  • What does he think of Republican presidential candidates who promote their lack of experience in government? Deep down, people know that you don’t want to elect a snake-oil salesman.”
  • Who’s to blame for the logjam in Congress? “You can’t reach this level of dysfunction and not have both parties share a little bit of the blame.”
  • What’s the difference between Washington and California? “I feel pretty good about California.”
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