Many of our past presidents have faced similar moments of great turbulence. If Obama wants to reclaim his proper place as the leader of the world’s (still) most powerful country, he should take some lessons from them. Even in the face of the Standard & Poor’s downgrade, the United States is the only country capable of restoring order and moving the markets and global economy forward. And only its leader can captain this crucial journey. But where is he?
Like Obama, Lincoln’s presidency was marked by moments of great failure and public criticism. It took our 16th president a long time to find the personal conviction, courage and faith he needed to lead effectively in order to save the union. Can Obama find his own power (and larger purpose) to lead right here, right now? Only he can answer this question. But the search begins, if Lincoln is any guide, with framing the stakes.
Lincoln used speeches such as the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural to put the events of the Civil War in perspective. He explained what was happening, why a specific course was necessary, and what the tradeoffs were of following this path. With no time to waste, Obama must likewise lay out for our country and the global community the momentous issues confronting us and outline a clear strategy for addressing them. Then he must call his citizens to action. People long to serve; they are eager to make a difference when big things hang in the balance. Just remember the aftermath of September 11 when millions clambered to help. History is rich with examples of ordinary Americans mobilizing for war, raising millions to support disaster relief and holding prayer groups for those in need.
John F. Kennedy understood the power of the American spirit and how to use his own charisma to inspire collective action. Throughout his presidency, he issued many calls to action: calls to improve education, calls to reach the moon, and calls to serve one’s country. Obama has not done so nearly enough. And yet when he has, the effect has been powerful.
Late last month, Obama asked Americans to petition Congress for a balanced approach to reducing the federal deficit. Capitol Hill switchboards and websites were mobbed as citizens rushed to play a part in an important moment. Imagine what the president could do with regular outreach such as weekly television or Internet fireside chats?