Many Americans dread the prospect of a 2016 presidential race between former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reasoning there must be viable alternatives in a nation of 310 million people with different last names.

But former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, speaking today at TD Ameritrade Institutional’s annual LINC conference, said Clinton and Bush represented precisely the kind of "choice Americans need to see." Both of them want to get things done and have displayed a willingness to compromise with the other side.

In an hour-long talk, Panetta voiced exasperation with the current environment in Washington. "When I served [in Congress], doing the right thing was considered good politics," he said. "I don't think [politicians think that] now."

The events that unfold in 2015 could well determine how the 21st century turns out, Panetta said. "We could have an American renaissance, with energy independence that also protects our environment," he told attendees.

But the nation could also continue to squabble and bicker while refusing to face tough decisions. That alternative implies America would become a nation "in decline moving from crisis to crisis." Which path it takes will determine our future.

Panetta recalled many of the great senators in both parties of the 1960s when he first came to Washington. They had political differences and fought ferociously in elections, but they always worked hard together to put the nation first.

When he worked on the budget committee, everything was on the table and they had to fight for every vote. Today, the budget no longer undergoes this rigorous process even though there is $18 trillion in debt.

As chairman of the Office of Management and Budget under President Clinton, Panetta recalled talking at length with a congresswoman from Detroit who refused to support the budget. When he called her again the next day, she told him that Jesus spoke to her in her dream the previous night. When he asked what Jesus told her, she replied he told her "to support the budget if she got the casino in Detroit."

"It's amazing what Jesus says," Panetta joked. But she got her casino and the budget passed by one vote.

After two wars in the Middle East, Panetta also expressed fears that the nation was so war weary it might turn isolationist. "We hope everything will be fine in this country, [but] it doesn't mean a damn thing if we aren't willing to fight" to defend our way of life.