Sequesters and leaders and pundits, oh my


U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, Virginia February 26, 2013. Obamavisited the shipyard to highlight the impact the sequester will have on jobs and middle-class families. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
Jena McGregor
Columnist February 27, 2013

Using the snarky parlance of Twitter, MSNBC host Chris Hayes tweeted early Wednesday morning that “Someone should write a column calling for our leaders to lead. #punditry #insight.”

As across-the-board budget cuts set to begin on Friday loom large, Hayes’ comment manages to playfully tweak Republicans’ messaging about the president’s road-show politics, the shallow discourse of talking heads about the sequester and the obvious, if also accurate, conclusions of some opinion writers. (Here’s a headline from a Post op-ed on Monday: “Sequester offers President Obama a time to lead”).

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. View Archive

Hayes’ remark would be funny if the issue he addresses weren’t so true. Indeed, it is painfully apparent that we need better leadership in Washington. Writing about it feels a little like being a sports announcer who says, during the fourth quarter, that what a football team really needs when it’s down by three touchdowns is to score points from the red zone. Duh.

And yes, writing that what we really need is better leadership may be an excuse for some pundits not to do the hard work of delving into the policy details of the sequester — an irrational plan with an opaque name to which few Americans are paying attention anyways. If the average voter doesn’t care about the details of which state will get hurt most by the cuts, or whose idea the whole thing was in the first place, or what the cuts could mean for the economy, then why bother? You’ll surely get drowned out amid the veritable chorus of other talking heads trying to come up with a new angle.

But here’s the thing: A lack of leadership really is the problem, and everyone — pundits, elected officials, journalists and voters — is right to beat this horse. We’re suffering from it on both sides. Our Democratic president isn’t leading on entitlement reform, our Republican House is bent on ideological showdowns and leaders in both parties stuck on playing the game the old way.

It doesn’t help that “leadership” has become one of the most overused, and therefore fuzziest, words in our national conversation. For some, leadership is about taking charge, forcing change and persuading people to fall in, lock-step, behind you. For others, it’s about taking a principled stand and not compromising on the issues most important to the people who elected you. But the word has been tossed about so much by our bosses at work, our elected officials in Washington and, yes, the pundits in the media, that the term itself can feel like it’s lost much of its meaning. As a result, calling for more of it can sound empty, superficial and even trivial, when of course real leadership is anything but.

To me, one of the best definitions of the word is one Steven Pearlstein used in a recent On Leadership column about the crisis we face. We don’t have a budget crisis or a deficit crisis or an entitlement crisis, he writes, but a leadership crisis. “What we are witnessing is the very opposite of leadership, which is the ability to solve seemingly intractable problems by getting above them and redefining them.”

We can scoff that there are too many pundits offering this up as insightful or surprising commentary. Hayes is right. It’s not a brilliant aha moment or stroke of creative genius to recognize that we need our leaders to do the hard work of rising above partisanship. But maybe repeating it ad nauseam will do something to remind the people in Washington who lead this country — and more important, the people who vote for them — that keeping score and putting petty politics first does nothing to help solve the truly difficult and unyielding problems that we face.

Read also:

Yahoo’s perplexing ban on working from home

When maternity leave doesn’t mean ‘out of office’

The corporate kabuki of performance reviews

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