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Joe Sestak: Why America Needs an Accountable President Again

Former Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak smiles on the side of the road in Pittsburgh on March 26, 2015.Former Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak smiles on the side of the road in Pittsburgh on March 26, 2015.
Americans have lost trust in politicians’ leadership, writes 2020 presidential candidate Joe Sestak.Jason Cohn—The Washington Post via Getty Images

On the aircraft carrier under my command, where the average age of sailors was 19 and a half, you could see accountability in action at all times. You especially saw it when an order was given that a plane about to launch suddenly must be switched out for another and kept on board. 

In such situations, the plane about to launch is already hooked up to a powerful sling that catapults it out over the water. No pilot will turn off their engines until they know for certain that they are no longer hooked up to that sling. If they do turn off their engines, and then the catapult is inadvertently activated, they will plunge into the water to their death.

A sailor, after unhooking the plane from the sling, walks right in front of it and gives a simple hand signal to communicate, “Okay, it’s safe now. You can turn off your engine.” But by remaining in front of the plane until the pilot is safely on deck, they’re also saying, “I’m accountable for my role. If I made a mistake, you are going right through me and we are going down together.”

There are few Americans who believe that anyone in Washington, D.C., is willing to stand in front of that plane, accountable to them. Because of that, Americans no longer trust our politicians, our process, or even critical civil society institutions like the free press and public universities. And that is why I am running for president: to restore accountability in our leadership. 

I spent 31 years in the U.S. Navy, rising to the rank of three-star admiral. During my multiple sea tours, including commanding an aircraft carrier battle group in the early days of the Afghanistan war, I was on the job 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In the military, you are always on duty. Lives and our nation’s security depend on it.

Our 21st-century world is an incredibly dangerous one. Between brutal civil wars, violent extremism, spreading autocracy, rising inequality, territorial expansionism, election interference, and nuclear proliferation, our policymakers have their hands full. And with climate change looming over all, our very civilization now faces the most destructive threat of all.

Our public servants have failed us on so many fronts. They saw us embark on a tragic war in Iraq, with supporters from both parties voting to authorize it—and no one was ever held accountable for that tragic misadventure. They watched as the greed of big banks replaced accountability as politicians removed the safeguards on our financial industry. And when it resulted in the financial meltdown, not a single executive or politician was held accountable for crashing our economy or causing suffering that hurt millions of families.

It is this unaccountable leadership that is responsible for the lack of trust in America today. It undermines our sense of national unity, of who we are and what we stand for.

It is why so many voted the way they did in 2016. They were tired of establishment politicians they felt had misled them and not served their interests—and voted for someone who claimed he would “drain the swamp” and “make America great again.” Yet once he was elected, he proceeded to govern for the few, not the many—for the banks, the oil and coal industries, and the 1%—by gutting financial sector and environmental regulation and giving massive tax breaks to the wealthiest.

But beyond this, the decline in America’s moral leadership extends even further beyond our borders. This is because one of our greatest strengths—our ability to convene the world to fight the challenges of the day, whether tyranny or climate change—is undermined every time we side with despots over our friends or undermine the multilateral institutions that have brought peace to much of the world.

In profound ways, we have lost what was left of our moral authority on the world stage. Since becoming the most powerful country in the world in the middle of the last century, we have surely made some mistakes on the global stage, but until recently most people around the world still looked up to the United States as a beacon of freedom and opportunity, and as a powerful referee capable of presiding over a rules-based liberal world order. We’ve now abdicated that role.

Our values—from human rights to personal privacy to democracy itself—are at risk all around the world, and harming us at home. With an expanding authoritarian China, a belligerent Russia, and increasing autocracy from the Philippines to Venezuela, it’s never been more important to restore values-based American leadership in the world to protect us at home. 

And that must start by restoring responsible leadership accountable to the American people. When all Americans believe that the people we elect deserve to be in power, that their conduct in office is worthy of respect, and that they can be held accountable for their decisions, our politics will finally be worthy of our great people. My “Plan for America” is a roadmap to that brighter future. 

If elected president, it will be my solemn duty to always hold myself accountable to the American people. They deserve nothing less.

Joe Sestak is a Democratic candidate for president and a former Navy admiral, White House director for defense policy, and representative for Pennsylvania’s 7th District.

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