It is cliché to note that America is facing a crisis of leadership. To find an example of our collective anxiety about this fact, look no further than the media frenzy that surrounds the prospect of each new entrant to the GOP field. Will Perry run? Will Palin run? Will Christie run?
The bigger question is: If any of the undeclared candidates run, will we be inspired again?
The answer is that we can't be inspired until we return to a higher set of standards for holding our public figures accountable. We have gone from expecting a leader to do the most good to expecting that he or she merely does no harm. Recent events illustrate the world of difference in these philosophies and show that neither party has really grasped the importance of siding with the most good over the absence of harm.
Take the president's speech this past Saturday. He chided Republican candidates for not silencing the booing that began after a gay servicemember asked the field if they would try to “circumvent the progress” made for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military. Again, the facts are murky, perhaps the candidates didn't hear the boos (though Herman Cain apparently did), or maybe they thought that they were excused for criticism because they weren't the ones booing the soldier. Put simply, the entire Republican field was content to do no harm, but were not moved to do the most good by silencing those who would disrespect a military servicemember (again, alternative interpretations of the booing are possible, but the point stands).
This problem is endemic to the Republican party and the current candidates. Take the current flap over Perry's hunting lodge. I've commented on the uncertainty of the situation before, but there is also the attitude one takes toward racism. I've heard some people argue that Perry didn't own the property and didn't endorse the use of that word. The former is true and the latter I probably believe, but again, there is a difference between not saying racist things and speaking out against their utterance. The first person does no harm (and good for her), but the second person is morally courageous and does the greatest good.
Other Republicans have had this problem as well, and David Gregory of Meet the Press has been excellent about pointing out the fact that Republican leaders who did not believe that Barack Obama was a Muslim did nothing to dispel that poisonous rumor. The issue, in Gregory's mind, was an issue of leadership.
Has Obama embraced the notion of “do the most good?" I don't think so. Ron Suskind's book Confidence Men details the consistency with which Obama embraced Larry Summers' economic mantra: Do no harm. On the debt deal, on the budget battle (specifically on tax cuts for the wealthy), and on healthcare, commentators have pointed out that Obama is content for compromise; doing no harm, rather than pushing for the greatest good.
Lastly, in an odd counterpoint to the Perry situation, Obama has recently received scrutiny for appearing with the New Black Panthers in 2007. This might be a junk story, and I don't know much about it yet, but the parallels are striking if it holds up. When racism is at issue, I think Obama, just as much as Perry or anyone else, should not be content with doing no harm. They must seek the greatest good.
When we return to holding our leaders to that standard, they will rise to meet it. At that point, we just may become inspired again.Recent events show the importance of doing the most good over not doing any harm. Our leaders won't inspire us until they learn that lesson.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore