If this year’s presidential campaign
has made anything clear, it’s that both George Bush and John
Kerry want to be the president — very, very badly.
There’s no other explanation for why they would subject
themselves to the insanity that has come to characterize a U.S.
presidential campaign. The sustained personal commitment is
enormous, and then when it’s finally all over, the winning
candidate has to serve as president of the United States for at
least four years.

Jason Pesick

The question that the campaign did not make clear is why either
of these two men would want to be president. The degree of
difficulty that lies ahead can be partially understood by comparing
becoming president now to taking over for quarterback Chad Henne
with six minutes to go in Saturday’s game. Only the stakes
are a little higher.

The incoming president will face a number of difficult
challenges. Here are a few, although there will be many, many
more:

 

Fiscal and entitlement shortages

The nation’s annual budget deficits have become extremely
large. Last year’s deficit was $375 billion; the
Congressional Budget Office predicts this year’s will be $422
billion. The annual deficits begin to disappear at the beginning of
the next decade, but that assumes the president’s tax cuts
are not made permanent. And the projections don’t take into
account large spending increases that will undoubtedly occur.
Making matters worse, the size of the deficits appears up to
hundreds of billions of dollars smaller than it actually is because
it includes the Social Security surpluses that should be dedicated
toward preserving the program for future generations.

Two Brookings Institution scholars, William Gale and Peter
Orszag, estimate that future generations will owe current
generations $44 trillion for programs such as Medicare and Social
Security. The Baby Boomers are preparing to start retiring, so
unlike 12 years ago when Bill Clinton had time to correct the
nation’s fiscal maladies, Kerry or Bush will find himself in
a race against the clock.

 

Iraq and national security

The number of U.S. troops who have died in Iraq is now at 1,121
or higher, according to the Associated Press, and even though there
are now about 142,000 U.S. troops there, the country is not under
U.S. control, the Iraqi government’s control or even the
insurgents’ control. Iraq, which was once under the control
of a ruthless strongman who was in turn being closely monitored by
the United States, is now a threat to U.S. national security.

It’s difficult to buy the argument that Libya decided to
commiserate with the United States for fear of an attack. In fact,
the difficulties the United States is facing in Iraq not only make
it more difficult to attack another country, but it may be
impossible to fight a truly necessary war. Iran and North Korea are
each more powerful and more threatening than Iraq was, and they
also both know how difficult it would be for the U.S to fight a war
against them.

And it’s become incredibly difficult to imagine a scenario
in which either Bush or Kerry could send troops into a country like
Sudan where U.S. troops could help avert a major humanitarian
disaster. Sending troops to fight for our principles will have a
lower priority than protecting our national security, and we may
not even have the troops to do that.

 

Arab-Israeli conflict

The Arab-Israeli conflict has bedeviled U.S. presidents for
decades. The one constant for many of those years, Yasser Arafat,
may be nearing death. This could end up having positive results if
a more responsible Palestinian leader takes his place, but it also
makes the conflict more confusing and complicated. Saddam was a bad
guy, but getting rid of him didn’t necessarily improve much
of anything. Could someone worse take over for Arafat? Would a new
leader be unable to control the complex web of factions within the
Palestinian community? And what would happen immediately following
Arafat’s death?

 

These problems are not just headaches for the incoming
president. Having to study for a midterm and cover a presidential
election at the same time is a headache. Either Bush or Kerry will
face impending crises. So why would anyone want to be president at
a time like this? Well, taking over at the last minute provides the
opportunity to attain greatness — something the country could
use out of its leaders.

But when you go to the polls today, don’t forget that the
policy failures of one of the candidates are largely responsible
for at least the first two crises.

 

Pesick can be reached at
“mailto:jzpesick@umich.edu”>jzpesick@umich.edu.

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