A deeply faithful friend from Virginia recently told me of the routine he follows each morning. Rather than immediately focusing on the day's bad news, he lists his blessings and counts them. In our troubled world, it's a routine worth replicating, if only to give us a sense of perspective — to prioritize what's important and what's not.
Every morning at breakfast, I find myself reading newspapers that chronicle a distasteful government shutdown, bitter debt-ceiling fight, recurring Obamacare glitches or embarrassing intractability on the international scene. By the time I finish my bowl of cereal, I'm either depressed or angry, oftentimes both. Focusing on public affairs as a first order of the day misplaces my priorities.
While it's perfectly appropriate for citizens to be passionate about public policy and our country's direction, the most important priorities in our lives (health, faith, family, friendships) are often either overlooked, or taken for granted. Author Stephen Covey once said, "The key is not to prioritize your schedule, but to schedule your priorities. "
For decades, Congress was a place where the toughest of arguments could be made, where dissention flourished, but where, at the end of a day's disputes, leaders made it a priority to come together to act civilly toward one another and resolve differences, recognizing that the nation's business had priority over a Member's reelection, pet project or political philosophy.
It's different today, but it just may be a case of misplaced priorities.
Now, instead of fulfilling national responsibilities, Members of Congress and our President attend more to political victory and self-promotion and less to moving America forward. Today victories must be total so that "winners" achieve 100 percent of their priorities and losers get nothing they want legislatively. Too many officials' priorities today are misplaced — they're not leading. And the real losers are the American public.
Perhaps this is the result of gerrymandering, so that more "safe" districts breed extremists, able to take outrageous positions and still secure reelection. Perhaps today's breed of self-serving elected officials believes that appealing to a narrowly focused but active constituency will encourage activists to show up at election time to secure their reelection. While part of today's extremism may be justified because it's in response to America's debt-ridden economic condition, shutting down government rarely ends well, whoever is blameworthy. Members of Congress who truly believe they're doing what's right for America and faithfully representing their constituents' best interests should hold fast, but they need to be shrewd enough to develop an alternative to a shutdown.
Whatever the cause, Members whose priorities are total victory and the destruction of opponents produce paralyzing gridlock. Legislative standoffs cause major public losses — damaging the economy, wasting precious time and further paralyzing government agencies stuck in the middle between warring political factions and, ultimately, a disgusted public.
Too many elected officials today also believe they're Presidential material. Running for President is their ultimate goal because they think the public deserves them. President Obama met that test. Based on his domestic and foreign policy record to date, Mr. Obama entered the presidency unprepared. I join others who believe it's healthy for America to have elected a racial minority as our president, but the presidency deserves and demands a person of wisdom, stature and accomplishment. Mr. Obama lacked all three as he sought our nation's highest office. Now the public knows it, lately assessing his job approval at only 43 percent. Presidential service shouldn't be symbolic, an image builder or a proving ground. It always requires negotiation with Congress on critical issues.
Now other first-termers exploit single issues, believing that such attention-getting qualifies them as leaders — makes them qualified for President.
Our Constitutional guarantee of freedom affords citizens and elected officials broad latitude in the conduct of their affairs. But those who balance their ego with the satisfaction of helping others are the best public servants. All elected officials, particularly Presidential candidates, should take note. Their priorities should be focused on national progress and bringing credit and respect to the offices they hold, because good policies usually produce good politics. Impasses that produce government shutdowns demonstrate failure, and failing to communicate to resolve political or policy differences is wretched leadership.
Officeholders will ultimately be judged mostly on how well they pursued the public good and led with conviction. Those with high standards of conduct — who distinguish the office they hold — will best be remembered for their evenhanded service. What they do for the common good marks effective leaders. ♦