Leadership is one of those things. Like the statement made famous by Associate Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, most of us would be hard pressed to define it, but agree I know it when I see it. Lately, however, what we've seen is its absence. Sadly, it's gone AWOL.
If ever we had a need for effective Leadership, today is that time. The nation is struggling to find itself, or re-discover itself, or figure out what the heck happened. Disagreement is rampant, and divisive. In fact, some seem to take great pleasure in being contrary, as if that, in and of itself, was the desired end. There may, in fact, be some genuine anarchists in the mess, but personally, I think most people are just plain frustrated, and I think it's pretty easy to see why.
We all suffer from the effects of the financial meltdown, yet many cry for less regulation. That seems counter-productive on its own face. They were out of control, so let's do away with controls. Say what?
Now, it's easy to complain, and there's lots to complain about. But, rather than succumb to that route, I'd rather look at this differently. So, here's what I propose. Since he's got the job, I'm going to lay the success of these ideas at the foot of the President, not because he caused the problems but because he is, de facto, the guy we elected to be our Leader.
Without getting overly specific, partly because this would grow far too long, I'm going to suggest two things.
First, we need a Direction. If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there. Right now there are lots of roads being offered, and a crowd at the entrance to each one saying "This is it!" It's impossible to know which one to take, partly because they can't all be right, and partly because, in many cases, those advocating them don't have a clue where they lead.
People are yelling "less government." Okay, that sounds interesting, but what, exactly, does it mean? One of the favorite whipping boys is the EPA. Just get rid of them! Okay, suppose we did.
Then, who ensures your water supply isn't polluted? Who do you call when industry pollutes your neighborhood with toxic fumes? Like it or not, the EPA actually does some things that protect you, and if you are old enough to remember Love Canal, you remember what life was like without it. Don't for a minute believe industry or some corporation is just going to do the right thing without regulation. Just look at the Banks!
So, step one is for the President to lay out a clear, concise direction for the country. I can think of several things I'd include, but there are more, and others I might not make a priority. Here's an idea:
Now, that's a tall order, but it's doable, and it's not just Drill, Baby Drill. In fact, it is specifically NOT that! Kennedy got us to the moon in less than ten years, and we had no clue in the beginning. The point is, we had a goal...a direction. Not everyone agreed we needed to go, but the majority thought it was a good idea.
Second, we need a Guide. I'm tempted to say we need a cheerleader, but that, unfortunately, sounds way too silly and immature. However, it's not wrong.
If you look back at history for an example, the best one is easily FDR. He took over as President in the midst of a mess, worse than today but still similar. If you ask an economist, at least most of them, how they truly measure things, they'll tell you they measure activity. It's not about wages, or prices, or other stuff. It's activity.
The easy explanation goes like this. If everybody went out today and spent some money, buying things they needed, doing the home repairs they're putting off, replacing the old car...stuff like that, the economy would recover almost immediately. Why? Because that Activity would make companies hire people, to staff the sales floors, produce the products, or just participate in all that business. Tax revenue would rise, because more people were working.
A recession is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You hear things are terrible. Maybe you know somebody who lost their job. You start to worry about your own job, and so you start saving more money...in case. You stop spending, and that means Activity contracts. Lower sales means more people lose their jobs, and it feeds on itself until nobody wants to spend anything. Everything collapses upon itself.
FDR famously said The only thing we have to fear...is fear itself. I don't know if he wrote those words, but he was absolutely right.
The problem right now is that no one believes in the American Dream. All the yelling and screaming is that frustration being vented. We can all find something terrible, and it becomes our whole focus. Everybody is afraid, and the money isn't creating activity, it's running and hiding in gold.
Leadership is both the carrot and the stick. What we need is direction, and somebody to help us want to go there. All that noise we hear...is people asking for Leadership. The ball is in the oval office. Your serve, Mr President.