I still remember a piece of advice I got not long after entering Congress. It came from a prominent journalist as we were talking about the bewildering array of issues Congress faced. Every day, he told me, I should ask myself a simple question: “What’s the most important thing to be doing today?”
This may be the toughest problem in politics: what do you focus on at any given moment? For the number of challenges facing policymakers is simply staggering.
Let’s start with the economic ones. At any given time, legislators are wrestling with such issues as the economic-growth rate, the need to provide broad-based economic opportunity, the perception that too many Americans are being left behind, the need for infrastructure investment, and a federal debt that has grown out of control.
Domestic and foreign-policy challenges are no less daunting. At home, these include immigration and civil-rights protections, the quality and availability of health care, the cost of higher education. Internationally, the challenges include everything from dealing with powerful adversaries like Russia and China to global issues like climate change and terrorism.
Finally, we face serious political challenges, such as the disintegration of the political center, and great uncertainty about whether our political system can meet the tests confronting it.
In a very real way, the depth and breadth of the challenges we face show the depth and breadth of America’s abilities and ambitions. They are a symbol of all we have done and all we are trying to achieve. Our policymakers sit down with an impossible agenda every day and try to make progress on it.
So how do they establish priorities? The plain fact is that you can’t solve problems like these alone. You need to find a lot of people who agree with you about them — and can agree on approaches to resolving them. It’s not simply a matter of asking yourself: “What do I think our biggest problem is?” It also involves asking: “What do I think is the biggest problem I can make progress on?”
In short, my journalist friend was right on the mark. Maybe the best you can do each day is ask yourself: Am I putting my energy where it ought to be right now? It’s what makes governing such a bewildering, challenging job. It’s also what lies at its heart.
Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at the IU School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years, representing a district in south central Indiana.