The next American president faces a fuller and probably more daunting than usual agenda. Constitutionally, he is commander-in-chief, and national security must of course come first. There’s another White House role, long neglected in this country, that closely rivals the first in importance and in fact impacts our national security directly. America needs someone to lead the process of forging and implementing a comprehensive national trade strategy. We need a “competitor-in-chief.”
We need to commit ourselves as a society to reduce our foreign debt, restore the value of the dollar, and expand investment and production in this country. Without protectionism or isolationism, America could then once again be financially strong and enjoy the strategic benefits that flow from being a creditor nation. Those changes would enhance our leadership in the world while restoring faith in the American Dream.
Recently, I’ve sat through dozens of discussions about the need for such a strategy to meld all the factors – traditional trade policy as well as tax, energy, environment, health care, infrastructure, education, and other policies – into a coherent, comprehensive program that would unleash the competitive brilliance of American workers and entrepreneurs. The overall concept seems to be gaining in acceptance. There is no lack of interesting ideas about the various components of an effective national strategy. We have numerous studies and ample data in hand.
Intellectually, molding these inputs into a strategy is challenging work, but it’s not impossible. Virtually every other economy of any size has a clear idea of what it is tying to accomplish economically and how that advances their national security. If they’ve “connected the dots” for themselves, why can’t we, too?
The core of the American problem lies in the very nature of our system of government. A key to our constitutional design is the broad diffusion of power. The good news is that such diffusion protects citizens very well (albeit not perfectly) against abuses of government power. The bad news is that it makes fundamental reform quite difficult and, in peacetime, nearly impossible.
Only strong, sustained and dedicated White House leadership can overcome the political, institutional and bureaucratic barriers to fundamental reform. To change things for real, the next administration needs to commit itself and its resources to that task as a matter of the highest priority. In other words, we need to deal with our international economic performance with the same serious sense of purpose that we expect from the national security team headed by the commander-in-chief.
So, here is a simple scenario for either candidate to give America a fair chance to develop an effective national trade strategy:
1. Pick a vice presidential running mate with background and experience fit to be the “competitor-in-chief.” This would include knowledge of the inner workings of the Congress, the executive branch and the real as well as the financial economy.
2. Announce now that you will designate the vice president as the head of a new, improved National Economic Council. Naming the second highest elected official in the land as its head would empower the NEC to delegate tasks to executive agencies, to ensure effective coordination and strategic coherence, and to stop turf battles before they can disrupt the effort.
3. Task the NEC with devising a comprehensive plan within six months of Inauguration Day.
A decision now to address our international competitive and debt problems as a top priority of the next administration would help either candidate assure the voting public that he is serious about fundamental economic reform. It would give him a mandate for change without which he could not hope to overcome vested interests. It would give the next vice president the chance to get a running start on the agenda that could be of make-or-break importance to the administration – and the country.