At the zenith of his presidency, George W. Bush wore a flight suit— but now he's leaving his successor in a straitjacket. As the presidential candidates tout their plans for the future, it's easy to overlook the dismal reality: there's a colossal mismatch between the problems we face and the next president's power to deal with them. Either Barack Obama or John McCain will have to lead a country crippled by debt—and that was before the $700 billion federal bailout of private lenders—and burdened by an array of practically inescapable military commitments. "It's close to an impossible situation," Leon Panetta, the White House chief of staff in Bill Clinton's first term, told me. "The next guy, whoever he is, will be a one-term president—if he is lucky."
At his Inauguration in 1989, Bush's father complained about the fiscal limitations he would face: "We have the will but not the wallet"; now his son is leaving the next president in the same position. People who study the federal balance sheet suggest that we do not have the cash flow to support Obama's social-spending proposals or McCain's corporate-tax-cut commitments. Even with roads, bridges and city schools crumbling, it is hard to justify borrowing more from foreigners at a time when they hold nearly $3 trillion in U.S. government debt obligations.
One of the next administration's biggest decisions—the credit bailout—has already been decided for it. It will reorder the way the markets are regulated and your tax money is lent, and yet neither Obama nor McCain has had much of a say in the building of this new machine. It's as if the New Deal had been launched in the last days of the Hoover administration. I asked James A. Baker III, the chief of staff (and cabinet officer) under Ronald Reagan and Bush Sr., whether this was an unusual situation. "It sure is," he told me. "There is a lot that is already baked in the cake."
Foreign creditors, Panetta notes, have an increasing say in our fiscal affairs, and Baker sees no easy way to withdraw from Iraq, Afghanistan and the Pakistani frontier. "The differences between Obama and McCain are far less than meets the eye because their options in the region are so limited," Baker says. "Obama is not going to cut and run in Iraq, and we have no choice but to step up our role in the other places." The Israelis are eager for the new president to restart peace negotiations, but never has America had less leverage or respect with Israel's enemies.
Can the new president wiggle out of his predicament? Yes, say Panetta and Baker, and they agree on the method of escape: a sustained effort at bipartisanship. "The next president has got to fix our dysfunctional political system," Baker says. "All of this hyperpartisanship is ruining our faith in our own ability to govern ourselves." It's no coincidence that McCain and Obama are stressing their skills at reaching across the aisle. But it won't be easy to deliver. If McCain wins in November, the "maverick" will face a Democratic Congress—and thus no choice but to try bipartisanship. Obama's scenario is more complex. If he wins, he is likely to be joined by a much-enhanced Democratic majority in Congress. Does Mr. Consensus make common cause with beleaguered Republicans or hunker down with his own? Going your own way can work, but, as Bush's tenure has shown, not for long, and not in a way that does the country—and the office of the presidency—much good.