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President Amy Gutmann (left) sits with New York Times columnist Charles Blow (center) and former Pa. governor Ed Rendell.

Credit: Andrew Dierkes

In 2010, Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell called out the National Football League for postponing a contentious Eagles-Vikings game. “My biggest beef is that this is part of what’s happened in this country,” he had said. “I think we’ve become wusses.”

Penn President Amy Gutmann spun the quote back at five panelists yesterday afternoon during the annual Silfen University Forum in Irvine Auditorium.

“Has America really become a country of wusses?” she asked the group of the political experts — Rendell among them.

The forum is an annual discussion panel sponsored by Penn trustee David Silfen and his wife Lyn. This year’s forum focused on the question, “Is America broken?”

“We have leaders who are scared to lead,” Rendell said in response to Gutmann’s question.

The Wall Street Journal columnist and former White House speech writer Peggy Noonan reflected on her time working for Ronald Reagan’s administration, offering an optimistic view on politicians’ ability to compromise. “I’m a great believer that you can push the ball forward,” she said. “I saw a president work with crazy people on the Hill — it can be done.”

Noonan strongly emphasized President Barack Obama’s need to achieve reform comparable to Reagan’s and take greater chances on policy issues.

According to The New York Times columnist Charles Blow, Obama did take a great chance with health care and is still being beaten up for it. “It isn’t fair to say he could’ve done eight more grand things with his Congress,” he said.

And, Blow added, “Reagan was president so long ago, he may as well be Fred Flintstone.”

From social welfare to unemployment to the healthcare system, the panelists expressed their doubts on some of the most pressing domestic issues.

The general consensus was that America is on the wrong track.

“You all seem to think [America] is broken,” Gutmann said to her guests.

Gutmann went on to note that polarized ideologues exist, but they can’t come together and compromise. According to her, the ideas are all there, but Washington can’t seem to implement them.

For Noonan, one of the challenges is this generation’s 24/7 lifestyle. “Your constituents get mad if you’re not home for the weekend.” Noonan said. “Nobody in Washington can have a drink and make a deal” because the media is on 24/7.

Former United States Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) agreed, blaming media sensationalism and the general lack of trust in the government, both from the public and among politicians.

However, all the panelists agreed that politicians need to be proactive in reaching a compromise.

Despite the stark contrast in opinions, the panelists always managed to balance frankness with respect.

In the closing question and answer session, Rendell focused on the need for young people to take action in order to affect change in government. “Run for office,” he advised the Penn students in attendance. “People will tell you you can’t win: baloney.”

The audience of students, alumni, faculty and staff was extremely receptive to the serious but lighthearted manner of discussion.

“Each of the panelists come from a very different place in politics and government,” Wharton junior and College Republicans President Laura Brown said. “It was really interesting to get the perspectives of not only the left and the right, but also the media and the senator and the campaign people.”

On the other hand, first-year Perelman School of Medicine resident Benjamin Ediger felt the conversation was somewhat stilted. “As a younger person, I don’t know if it necessarily was speaking to me as much as [to] people of the speakers’ age groups,” he said. “Otherwise, it was very insightful.”

Overall, audience members were impressed with the panelists’ ability to find common ground in certain issues. “Obviously, there are some sticking points and there are places where they would make different changes, but there was an over-arching agreement that America is on the wrong path, and that we do need change — and that there is a way to get there,” Brown said.

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