Grim and grimmer. That was the outlook presented by a group of academics and big thinkers at Harvard University as they analyzed the challenges facing the next president. The problems will be so immense as to be "almost beyond the capacity of any human being," said Harvard government professor Graham Allison. Among the challenges he cited are what to do about Iraq (where "we can't win, and we can't afford to lose") and dealing with the nuclear potential of Iran and North Korea. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, now a Harvard economics professor, was more positive, arguing that "it's optimism, not pessimism, that works." But even Summers went on to describe five challenges that will need to be resolved: reforming America's financial institutions, lessening inequality between society's richest 1 percent and the bottom 80 percent on the income scale, reforming the healthcare system, creating a more open global economy, and providing energy security while reducing climate change. Compounding the problems, Summers said, is that "in each of those five areas, it is not entirely clear what needs to be done."
Such sobering forecasts raise the question of why anyone would want to be president in the first place. But fortunately, the candidates tend to be more optimistic than the academics about the potential for getting things done. The professors spoke at a recent panel organized by the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.