We Need A New Generation Of Leadership

by George Kennedy on September 5, 2011


We Need A New Generation Of Leadership

I, like many, accepted the enigma that is President Obama until his latest decision, or concession, to walk away – gratuitously – from stricter ozone pollution standards that he had been promising for three years. He did not have to do this and therefore the outrage was justified. This was just the latest in a series of sellouts to business interests and the Republican Party.

It is time to stop the hand-wringing about our hapless president and think about the future – with or without him at the helm. In either circumstance, we have reason to be concerned. I read he is risk averse. Given his performance to date, it may be safe to assume he is unwilling to risk anything on our behalf. The importance of the ordinary citizen and the happenings of everyday life are the stuff of presidential speeches and public pronouncements, but we are not where the political rubber meets the road – neither in the Congress nor on the priority list of this White House.

To many of us, the president was to usher in a new era of leadership in Washington. Yes, he was young and untested but we were ready to believe, to hope again. We desperately wanted to turn the page on the harsh real politik of the previous administration whose legacy will tarnish us in the memory of anyone old enough to remember 9/11 and eight years of Fascism. And that is not harsh! President Obama is now a profound disappointment who does not command the respect of his enemies or that of his base of supporters. I am not suggesting a linkage between this quality of leadership and the success he may realize in his quest for a second term.

We can’t wait for the outcome; we have to move on. The specter of a President Perry or a President Romney might make the president the better preference of the unattractive possibilities. “Republicans have to nominate someone better than the person they want to defeat. If they get so adamant that they will only support a candidate that believes everything on their checklist, they will re-elect Obama” opines Mike Huckabee, himself a former Arkansas governor and a 2008 Republican presidential hopeful.

So let’s look forward. We will need leaders at all levels: local, state, and national. Think Wisconsin, Ohio, Idaho and where Democrats, progressives, and independents are fighting economic terrorism on a scale not seen since the Great Depression. So who are these new leaders? I suppose there are always “qualified” candidates in the wings, but can they emerge intact through the corruption and money to buy a place in line? Will they want to in the current toxic political culture?

How much of their soul will they have to mortgage in a system where corporations are people and corporations buy the leadership that preserves their interests? More of us need to get in the game! We may not be able to compete with unlimited corporate money but we can become fighting mad foot soldiers for democracy. Remember the expression “Lead, Follow, or Get Out Of The Way”? It is time we said to our elected representatives, you won’t lead, so follow or get out of the way!

For me, a place to start is with the Senate candidacy of Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts. There are dozens of Elizabeth Warrens out there; you know them. I picked her example because I am familiar with it. If you’re not familiar with her background, Google her name. This country needs champions desperately because we are sinking under the weight of our own hubris. The witches brew of domestic politics we witness daily has been boiling since Iraq and Afghanistan and polls consistently reveal this brew is increasingly unpalatable not just here at home but, also, to allies and friends abroad. We are paying a steep price in lives, jobs, national security, and social cohesiveness. Our enemies – old and the newly-spawned – choke on our brew but now use it at mealtimes to recruit new members to their cause and enemies for us. Part of our response is an escalating defense budget and an appetite to re-establish American hegemony. The oilfields in Iraq and Libya come to mind.

Elizabeth Warren remains true to her cause: relief and fairness for the middle class. Although the president was too risk averse to fight for her out of conviction she embodied his commitment to a fair deal for the middle class, she remains unbowed and is a likely candidate for the Senate seat formerly occupied by Ted Kennedy. Say what you will about Ted Kennedy but we had no greater advocate for working Americans than he was. He was “Give’em hell, Ted!”

We need to take a hard look at Warren and get behind her senate candidacy. Look at it this way. Were she confirmed as the head of a new consumer protection agency, she would have had two mountains to climb from day one: hostile and recalcitrant Republicans in Congress and perhaps a timid White House when she became a target of the banking industry, for example. Warren would join the current EPA administrator, Linda Jackson, in comparing relative positions on the hopelessness and frustration scale.

However, in the Senate, should she succeed, she would have the independence to be a real advocate for the middle class despite hostility from her Republican colleagues and very possibly tepid support from the White House. As a senator, she could do some broken field running, build coalitions, and educate. Bernie Sanders, the intrepid conscience of the Senate, needs allies. His is a lonely, but powerful, voice that cannot be stilled. Were he a presidential candidate for 2012, he would electrify voters on a scale analogous to 2008. Maybe I am guilty of a little irrational exuberance here but he would give us additional choice.

I believe Elizabeth Warren believes in the nobility of the middle class struggle to survive the relentless assault by America’s oligarchy and their conservative handmaidens in the Congress. Their story is made more poignant by a president disconnected from lives beyond his bubble.

We have to look ahead; to look out for our own interests; to advocate for those we feel will advocate for us. Elizabeth Warren, if successful, would be one of 100 but we have to begin somewhere with a piece of the pie we can digest. The alternatives are not attractive: become disconnected from the process and stay at home on election day; vote for the presidential candidate of your choice (not the other guy!); hope vainly for change that may never come; complain, whine, and blame everyone else. Or, you can find the best candidate’s hook available and hang your hat on it. Who knows, maybe this time we’ll get lucky.

George Kennedy

George Kennedy is a retired senior Foreign Service officer with extensive international experience. He holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon and two graduate degrees from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Mr. Kennedy was a political advisor to state and federal officials and has authored strategy pieces for Members of Congress and presidential candidates. He serves on the Advisory Board for the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona.

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