05/10/2008 01:23 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Fierce Urgency of Now

During the 2004 general election campaign, former Secretary of Defense William Perry--one of the great public servants in the post-World War II history of the United States--actively campaigned for a presidential candidate for the first time. Speaking repeatedly and passionately on behalf of John Kerry, the normally understated Perry described the 2004 election as "the most important in my lifetime." For a man who had grown up during the Great Depression and World War II, who had reached professional maturity and brilliant engineering and business success during the Cold War, and then had served as undersecretary of defense in the Carter Administration, it was a powerful statement--and a completely honest one.

The Iraq war had been a disastrous mistake and we had to find a way out. Our moral authority and military strength in the world were being squandered. Our domestic problems were piling up and we needed a new sense of purpose, clarity, and resolve to address them. The president that was seeking reelection showed no sign of understanding the nature of its resilience and its capacity for eventual self-correction. That may remain true, but "eventual"--the ability to look to some time in the future--is what we no longer have. The defining character of the 2008 election is what Barack Obama has called "the fierce urgency of now." We simply cannot drift through another four years of aimless "staying the course" in Iraq while the principal Iraqi parties dig in their heels on the big constitutional questions which cry out for compromise. Already, the indicators of our military strength--in terms of military recruitment quality, officer retention, and readiness for other military engagements--are in worrisome decline.

On issue after issue, from the home mortgage crisis to the ballooning budget deficit to the crisis of exploding health care costs and imploding insurance coverage, it is increasingly apparent that America's future as a great and successful nation is going to be at stake in the coming years, defined by whether we can find effective answers to these challenges--and pretty soon. How long can we go on being, as Thomas Friedman recently put it in his New York Times column, "Dumb as We Wanna Be," (and I would add, lazy and irresponsible as well)--"borrow[ing] money from China and ship[ing] it to Saudia Arabia"--before our profligacy catches up with us and defeats us? How long can we keep falling further and further not just our European peers, but countries like Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, China, and India in the quality of math and science training, before we lose the core foundation of our superpower status, our technological edge? This long national fling of careless self-indulgence cannot go on forever. Eventually, every bill comes due.

There is no problem that existentially challenges the United States--and every other country in the world--more than energy and climate change. As Friedman has repeatedly demonstrated in his columns, we are burying our heads in the sand and kicking the problem down the road. Now--when the need to incentivize the switch to wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy is more palpable and urgent than ever-- the renewal of tax credits for these alternative sources of energy is stuck in the Congress, as Bush and the Democrats lock horns again. Years after it became apparent that we had to break our addiction to carbon-based fuels and especially to imported oil, we face the worst crisis ever in global oil prices and supplies, and with barely improved efficiency in America's long love affair with the car. And now, as Friedman stresses, in the peak of the crisis, the answer of John McCain, and (very sadly) Hillary Clinton following him, is to suspend the one mild (and pathetically inadequate) incentive to improve fuel economy--the federal gasoline tax.

Anyone who thinks the problem can wait for another few years, or the next American administration after this one, should take a hard look at the gathering global food crisis. As more and more corn and other food crops are sucked up into the production of biofuels, and as climate change already begins to affect production of food crops in a number of countries, while population growth surges forward in most of the world's poorest countries, a global crisis is gathering. Already governments from Asia to Africa to the Middle East have been rocked. Food riots cost the prime minister of Haiti his job and are accelerating the danger of a sudden political convulsion in Egypt.

As numerous experts, like the head of the UN World Food Program, Josette Sheeran, are warning, the crisis not only threatens the ability of tens of millions of poor people to get enough food to survive (with declining quality of food intake already risking permanent impairment of young children in particular), but it also threatens global peace and stability. Where is the place of this issue in the presidential campaign? It's easy to celebrate the virtues of ethanol in a primary election in Iowa. But what are the candidates going to do as president to confront the hard trade-offs between food and fuel and to get serious--as if it were the dawn of the Great Depression or World War II--about the existential threat that dependence on oil and gas poses to our security and well-being, nationally and globally?

In the face of these obvious and deeply sobering challenges, of the greatest accumulation of crises facing the United States since World War II, what we have had from our media is a frenzy of obsession with personalities and the hunt for scandal worthy only of the tabloids, or entertainment TV. Within a spell-binding 24 hour period not long ago, CNN devoted more time to live, full coverage of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright's two speeches about his theories of race in America than it has given (insofar as I can tell) to the speeches of any presidential candidate in any 24-hour period in this entire presidential election campaign. Normally, once the candidates start getting into the really serious talk about the issues, CNN cuts away to go to the latest scandal of some depraved lunatic holding a sex slave in his basement. There was also the sad spectacle of one of the best television news organizations--ABC--spending the first half of the last presidential debate grilling the candidates on nothing but personal charges and questions of character.

How about a debate where the candidates talk about nothing but energy and climate change? It is increasingly apparent that this is the most serious challenge human civilization globally has ever faced. The Bush Administration has utterly failed in its moral and historical responsibility to act. How will the next president lead and cooperate internationally to achieve steep reductions in carbon emissions before it is really too late? What sacrifices are they going to ask of the American people? Or are they going to give us the same shameless froth that we have had for the last seven years of this presidency--that we can have it all, our war, our big homes and cars, our high-debt, high-consumption lifestyles, and not pay any price at all?

We need answers to these questions now, during this campaign. Because, if the presidential candidates do not speak some hard and difficult truths now to the American people, none of them will be able as president to mobilize the policy innovations and intensive investments that must come, with the speed that must come.

This is not a challenge for some time out there in the future when, if it doesn't work out the way we want this time, we can get a president who gets it. We have run out of time. We have reached that fierce and painful moment where we must change and act, urgently, now.