Lee H. Hamilton
Because we live in such tumultuous political times, it's easy to believe that today's intense public focus on the Trump presidency is something new — an obsession like none we've ever seen before. Yet to one degree or another, the president has always been at the center of the public's attention.
This may seem odd, but as I look ahead to a year we know will be momentous, what I feel most strongly is gratitude.
This was an interesting year that just passed, wasn't it? And here's the thing: I suspect 2018 will be just as intriguing. Let's start with some good news. The economy had a good year in 2017, seeing overall growth, subdued inflation, progress on wages and even some signs that economic growth is reaching the poor. The question is whether this can continue. For one thing, the Federal Reserve has been raising interest rates, which will almost certainly continue.
The first three words of the U.S. Constitution are, "We the People." The Constitution itself, our institutions of government, the democratic process — all were established to give Americans a voice in their governance. We are still striving to make that vision real for all, but we are closer than ever. So I ask you some questions about Congress today.
One of the quirks of life in Washington, D.C., is that pretty much the only people who don't refer to lobbyists by that name are, well, lobbyists. They are "policy advisers," or "strategic counsel," or "public relations advisers," or lawyers, or even just "consultants." Whatever they're called, though, they play a huge role in making policy.
One of the gifts of living in a representative democracy is that voting is only one of the rights it confers. For ordinary people who want to make change in their neighborhood or town or state or even the nation, the promise exists that by dint of their own efforts they can do so. This is a precious gift.
An interesting thing keeps happening to me. Every few days, someone — an acquaintance, a colleague, even a stranger on the street — approaches me. They ask some version of the same question: What can we do to pull ourselves out of this dark period?
I've been reminded recently of the old cowboy song, "Home on the Range." You know the line, "Where never is heard a discouraging word"? That is not the United States right now. It feels like everywhere I turn, all I hear is discouragement. Our institutions of government are paralyzed. We face serious national problems with no effective response in sight — or even, in some cases, an acknowledgement that a problem exists. We're fighting over racism, identity, security and culture. Our political system appears dysfunctional and occasionally on the verge of breakdown.
Back in March, two young members of Congress from Texas, Beto O'Rourke and Will Hurd, became brief internet celebrities. Unable to fly back to Washington because of a snowstorm, the two hit the road together, tweeting and live streaming their trip north. They fielded questions along the way on everything from the war on drugs to immigration — and so ended up holding what O'Rourke called "the longest cross-country live stream town hall in the history of the world."
One reason I consider myself fortunate to have led a life in politics is that, over time, I've had a chance to work with nine presidents. From Lyndon Johnson through Barack Obama, I've talked policy, politics, and sometimes, the trivial details of daily life with them. I met JFK twice for brief conversations. I don't know our current president, but I've gained valuable perspective from his predecessors.