Leon Panetta: The Most Underrated Politician in Recent History

 /  Nov. 11, 2014, 1:27 p.m.


Having served as CIA director and secretary of defense under the Obama administration, Leon Panetta asserts that his political career is over at age seventy-six. He is retiring to his walnut farm in his home state of California, but not without creating one last splash. Panetta’s memoir Worthy Fights is the fourth in a string of behind-the-scenes accounts from high-ranking cabinet members of the Obama administration’s first term. The other books were written by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, former secretary of defense Robert Gates, and former secretary of the treasury Timothy Geithner.

Those who are up in arms over the publication highlight the four pages where Panetta criticizes President Obama’s decision to remove American troops from Iraq, while ignoring the almost five hundred other pages which discuss Panetta’s lifetime of work. Some have criticized Panetta for not voicing his disagreements with the president more openly during his time in office. David Ignatius, writing in the Washington Post, asks: “wouldn’t it have been better to speak out at the time and perhaps even resign on principle?” Ignatius ignores the fact that Panetta did voice his disagreement with the president on the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. As Panetta writes in his book, “My fear, as I voiced to the president and others, was that if the country split apart or slid back into the pervasive violence that we’d experienced in the years immediately following the US invasion, it could become a new haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the United States.”

Panetta is perhaps the most underrated politician in recent history: he has over thirty years of public service under his belt in the military, Congress, and as part of various presidential administrations. His greatest legacy is his commitment over the span of his career to fiscal responsibility, often disregarding party affiliation in order to fulfill his goal of trimming the federal deficit. Panetta’s core beliefs about the budget came from his immigrant father Carmelo’s unwavering dedication to fiscal responsibility, which included paying for his son’s college education only in cash. Panetta sought to uphold this throughout his time in public office. As director of the Office of Management and Budget and chief of staff to President Clinton, he struggled with Congress to pass a balanced budget, while only cutting and consolidating where necessary. Panetta stood in opposition to those who wanted fewer cuts to federal programs, as well as those who believed in across-the board-budget cuts regardless of the importance of the program in question.

While working for the Clinton administration as the chief of staff, Panetta’s greatest challenge when it came to a balancing the budget was during the 1995-1996 government shutdown crisis. Panetta was personally stung by Newt Gingrich’s refusal to fund the government from September 1995 until January 1996 to force Clinton to bend to Republicans’ demands. Panetta’s experience on the Hill was central to the Clinton administration’s steadfast approach to Republican brinksmanship, which would eventually deal Republicans a crushing blow, costing the party its control of the House and Senate.

Given Panetta’s reputation as a budget wonk in the Clinton administration, he was an unusual choice for CIA director in 2009. However, President Obama was hopeful that his good public standing would restore public confidence in an agency that had lost credibility under the Bush administration. The crowning moment of Panetta’s directorship at the intelligence agency was the successful raid of the bin Laden compound in 2011. With two years of national security experience under his belt, Panetta was a shoo-in for the position of secretary of defense, where his fiscal conservatism was put to the test yet again.

Panetta inherited an expansive military at the tail end of two wars, and sought to downsize where he could in the Pentagon. His first budget as defense secretary scrutinized military spending and cut $487 billion over ten years. Unfortunately for Panetta, partisan politics interfered once again, resulting in additional non-discretionary spending cuts known as sequestration. After a careful paring down of the Pentagon budget, Panetta was forced to find another $500 billion to cut, despite his pleading. The result was a devastating blow to a man who had spent his political career working for reason and compromise.

Haley Schwab