Former secretary of defense and White House chief of staff Leon Panetta joined Mark Baldassare last week for a conversation about the importance of leadership in our turbulent era. The conversation ranged widely, from impeachment to comprehensive immigration reform to US relations with Russia—but COVID-19 was front and center.
“This is obviously a challenging time,” Panetta said, and the new administration will have to get to work quickly. “I think Joe Biden has done a pretty good job of trying to get his White House team in place,” he said.
Panetta also praised the new president’s efforts to “develop as quickly as possible a national strategy, which has been lacking in dealing with COVID 19 for the last number of months. . . . States and local governments have pretty much been on their own. And as a result, we have mixed performance in terms of dealing with COVID.”
The executive orders that have been issued in the early days of the Biden presidency are important, Panetta said, “but they won’t replace . . . the legislation that needs to be done.” COVID-19 relief is, in his view, the first legislative priority—and the issue most likely to garner bipartisan support in the House and the Senate. The Senate impeachment trial, he said, will “detract from some of the things Joe Biden wants to get accomplished. . . . When you have a trial going on, it’s not easy to simply shut it down and turn your attention elsewhere.” But, he added, “in the end, it has to happen.”
Panetta noted that Californians are filling many key roles in the new administration, which should strengthen the state’s ability to deal with a range of crises—including the COVID-19 pandemic. Governor Newsom, he added, “has done the best he can with a very difficult situation. . . . He really has relied on science, and the best advice he can get.” The state’s unemployment insurance difficulties and the mixed conditions across counties have created problems and confusion, and “it’s hurt him politically.” But Panetta also believes that the governor “knows what needs to be done”—and now that the federal government has a plan, “he can really get the help and assistance he needs.”
Although he is clear-eyed about the challenges that both California and the nation are facing, Panetta remains a believer in American leadership and shared values. “There is a sense among all Americans that we have a responsibility to make sure that our children can have a better life in this country . . . to make sure that the American Dream is real for our children.”