By Dr. ZENON CHRISTODOULOU
Crises demand steadfast leadership and true leaders emerge from them. Today, there are too many difficulties to name and too many elected officials who are yet to step up to the plate. The national storyline is still unfolding, but one thing seems too obvious to ignore – our leader of leaders, the President, has not lived up to his billing. To be fair, it was an unrealistically impressive trailer and times would have been difficult regardless of who took office three years ago. But, things went terribly awry at a time when we need a leader of historic stature. That’s not what we’ve seen.
Legitimate criticism can, and should, be spread far and wide, but the man at the helm typically gets the bulk of the praise, when things go well, and the blame, when they sour. No one remembers the guy who didn’t notice the iceberg on April 14, 1912. But Capt. Smith remains infamous a century after he went down with his ship. That’s nothing personal; it’s just the way group dynamics work. So, it’s the President’s baby. He can’t blame politics or the establishment as he did when he was a mere contender – he is the establishment. I think 70 million votes made that pretty clear and his current finger pointing at Washington is somewhat insulting. Since the 2008 election – he is Washington. He can no longer remain a critic looking to change direction. As the incumbent he should be committed to the course he proudly charted and took ownership of 3 years ago. Not an insignificant time frame, by the way, especially when the world is changing so rapidly and we’ve been somehow forced to play catch-up. It’s nonsense to claim that we didn’t vote for change we can believe in ‘tomorrow or next week’. How long are we expected to wait? We’ll need yet more change next week. Where is the leadership?
The most fundamental quality of leadership, at any level, is the ability to attract and retain followers. Without them, leaders do not exist. For the Presidency, more than a few followers are necessary. In fact, a good part of the nation is required, like the one President Obama had behind him in 2009 when he took office. But, if enough people lose their collective willingness to remain followers, the largest group can fall apart, even one that reached 70% of the nation on that frigid January afternoon. The President needs to reconnect with the country he so eloquently inspired and must make us feel good about following him again. His unique ability to connect with the nation cannot be limited to the campaign trail or through tiny sound bites framed by a backdrop of 70,000 or 2,000,000 adoring fans and curious onlookers. That worked in 2008, I don’t think it will work again.
Perhaps, after the President’s abbreviated trip to the Cape we will see concrete steps to put 25 million Americans back to work, gently replace Assad and Gadhafi with stable allies, restore security to Israel, hand off power to Presidents Karzai and Talabani, truly fight China for economic supremacy, destroy terrorism and make America what we should be and what the world needs it to be. And that doesn’t touch the environment, energy, immigration, education, healthcare or crime. We know that the Presidency is not an easy job, but it’s one that starts with the ability to lead and shouldn’t end with the success of a brilliant campaign.
The plot has been set and the spotlight is focused on center stage. We need a transformational leader in the White House more than ever, not one who seems to take refuge behind the hyper-partisanship of our dysfunctional capital. The time is right for someone to cut through the establishment and focus on non-partisan solutions to far reaching policy issues. Not one who is driven by polls or flown to fundraising events. (Incidentally, $1,000,000,000 is an obscene amount to raise for a single campaign).
The 2012 election will be won by the candidate who can connect with the electorate and show how he/she will tangibly effect change, not by one who can deliver poetic and appealing rhetoric. The nation is thirsty for a truthful and straight-talking torch bearer to emerge. One who has the depth of understanding, ideological consistency, personal resolve and sincere compassion we are sorely missing. History is replete with leaders, good and bad, who rise to power by embodying the will and hopes of their people. They do it by connecting in a personal and visceral way, not from a lectern. The tele-prompter aided podium seems too phony and detached from the public’s daily plight to be meaningful.
The President’s unimpassioned comments from the pristine comforts of the Rose Garden after Hurricane Irene’s devastating effects didn’t seem to make even slightest headway towards re-connecting with the nation. He had the opportunity to make it personal, but stopped short when he told victims of that monstrous storm, “America will be with you in your hour of need.” Where will he be? If this was an attempt to appear engaged, perhaps he should have looked at the YouTube clips of Governors Christie and Cuomo or Mayors Booker and Bloomberg. They showed their leadership from the front lines before, during and after the crisis.
The United States and the world depend on American leadership and that requires our nation’s willingness to follow the President. Connecting with people in terms that are relevant and significant to them would be a welcomed change. The problems America faces affect each of us. Each individual, family, neighborhood and community is personally impacted by the policies implemented on their behalf. Sterile numbers on a census report or colorful lines on an economic chart can’t reflect the personal dramas they are designed to represent. Every seemingly benign statistic embodies the hopes, dreams and fears of a particular American. Leaders need to understand this and consider those they represent by first regarding them as more than just a potential vote.
The President’s ‘jobs speech’ next month will be another opportunity for him to re-connect with the nation and foster feelings of unity, shared destiny and optimism. It will also allow him to pull us back from the throes of just one crisis by presenting a decisive and concrete economic plan. Anything less will be like another TV season finale – a cliff hanger with more questions than answers. We can’t afford another year of suspense, be it through artful design or sheer incompetence.
Great leaders have the innate ability to make everyone feel special, important and committed to a goal greater than themselves. They don’t detach themselves, in word or deed, from their constituents; they embrace them as equals and make their connection personal. Our President is a master wordsmith and understands the impact that a single word or phrase can have. But he’s beginning to sounds more impersonal, detached and unconcerned than he should if he is to regain our support while he continues to refer to us ambivalently as ‘folks’. Caesar didn’t say, ‘friends, folks and countrymen.’ Porky Pig did. It’s too easy not to care if a folk is out of work. It’s too convenient to forget that when folks lose their houses they not only become homeless, they become hopeless. I don’t want to be a folk. I want a leader who thinks of me as the American I’m proud to be. At the right time, that’s who I’ll vote for. I don’t think I’ll be alone.
Dr. Zenon Christodoulou is vice chair of the Somerset County Democratic Committee and an active member of the No Labels movement.