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“The Challenges of Leadership in Our Times” | Former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta | February 6, 2024

“We could see an American Renaissance or we could see an American decline.”

Panetta Institute for Public Policy Chairman Leon Panetta discusses the growing challenges and turmoil facing the United States before a February 6, 2024 meeting of The Economic Club of Florida.

Show notes

Leon Panetta briefly told the Club about his background including reminiscences of Floridians he had worked with in Congress in the late 1970’s and 80’s, Senator Lawton Chiles and Congressman Claude Pepper.  He recounted how his parents were immigrants from Italy in the 1930s and how they believed they could give their children a better life in the United States.  His father instilled in him the idea of service.

“I really felt it was important to give something back to the country.  And frankly, what I’m trying to do here with the Panetta Institute is trying to develop a new generation of leaders for our country. And man, do we need a new a younger generation of leaders in this country,” he said.  “The rewards in public service are not money or power, or having a name on the door.  The purpose of public service is to improve the life of people in this country.  And I felt that I could help improve the lives of the people.”

The former military Intelligence officer pointed to how recruitment across the military services is down.  “The reward in public service is a reward that goes to the heart of what our democracy is all about, which is that all of us owe a duty to country. But one of the things I’m sensing in young people is that they don’t have that same drive that same sense of duty to country.”

Mr. Panetta deplores the lack of public service in young people today, and throughout his discussion, he suggested ways to get them more interested and working on improving lives.

“Looking to the future, what we really need to do with young people is establish a national service system that requires young people to serve this country, in some capacity, whether it’s in education or conservation, or health care, or the military.  It would be a hell of a lot better for them to pay for college, working for this country than simply borrowing the money to go to college like they do now.”  That suggestion drew a big round of applause from the audience.

He added, “If we don’t build a good future generation of leaders, we will continue to have problems with our democracy.”

As both a Congressman and Director of the Office of Management and Budget, he says he emphasized working together.

“During the Reagan administration as a Democratic Congressman, we sat down and passed immigration reform, apprehensive immigration reform.  Took us a while.  I was part of the negotiation on that immigration bill.  Republicans and Democrats sat down and worked through the issues, and we passed it with a bipartisan vote.”  They also worked together to pass Social Security and tax reforms.

He has seen both the best and worst of Washington, and he said now it’s at its worst.  The former CIA Director believes we now govern by crisis rather than using leadership.

“They’re waiting constantly for crisis to happen in order to get anything done. And it’s a hell of a way to go because there’s a price to be paid.  You lose the trust of the American people in our system of government,” he told the Club.  He discussed current day challenges from China, Russian, and Iran that will require bi-partisan leadership to effectively address.  “We can’t turn it into a partisan issue,” he warned.

At The Panetta Institute for Public Policy at California State University, Monterey Bay, he said they encourage young people to learn leadership.  One way is by asking the students to outline both the Democrat and Republican sides of an issue, and then to work out a possible consensus.

Mr. Panetta closed on a positive note.  “We’re at a pivotal point where the United States can go into one of two directions.  We could see an American Renaissance, or we could see an American decline.  I honestly think we could see an American Renaissance.  We have tremendous strength in our economy, we’re innovative, we’re creative.  We can teach young people the skills they need for the 21st century.  We can get back to a time when Republicans and Democrats are willing to work together in order to lead this country and we can provide world leadership.”

Links and Resources Mentioned in this Episode

The Economic Club of Florida podcast, provides an extended platform for discussion to educate, engage, and empower citizens on important economic, political, and social issues. Based in Tallahassee, Florida, the Club has featured distinguished speakers on engaging topics of national importance since 1977. To learn more, including how to become a member, visit or call 850-224-0711 or email [email protected].

Date of recording: 02/06/2024