Outlook: Where Are the Leaders?

David Rothkopf
Outlook Contributor and Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment
Monday, March 30, 2009 1:00 PM

"You wake up in the morning and once again the financial weather report calls for Armageddon followed by brief showers of despair. Seeking a ray of hope, you turn on the television and settle in to watch a broadcast of a Capitol Hill hearing. There in the hot seat is the man who holds the entire U.S. economy in his hands.

"And he looks like Harry Potter.

"You listen, eager for new ideas, but somehow much of what he says seems dispiritingly predictable. Is this the best America can produce? Aren't great crises supposed to bring forth great men? Did President Obama really just compare Timothy Geithner to Alexander Hamilton? We need Roosevelt and Churchill. Even watching Obama at times, it seems that we've elected -- despite their smarts and earnestness -- a government of stumbling technocrats whose solutions either fall short or go too far. It's enough to make you want to pull the covers back over your head."

David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, was online Monday, March 30 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article on how today's national and world leaders compare to the legendary figures of the past -- and where we should look to identify the people who will help lead us through our current crises.

A transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors


David Rothkopf: Hi, this is David Rothkopf. I'm happy to have the chance to address your comments on the piece I had in yesterday's outlook section on leadership, the current crisis and why it is so important to take a more rational and patient stance with our current leadership.


Paducah, Ky.: Having read the comments on your piece, what is your analysis of the comments? Of WaPo online readers? Do you get the impression that few people agree with you?

David Rothkopf: I was pretty overwhelmed with the reaction to the piece. In addition to over 600 comments published to the Washington Post site, I got about 150 emails from readers. I was only able to go through the first 100 or so comments to the site but read (and answered) all of the emails. The emails ran about 5-1 positive. The comments on the site were more critical. I found however, with the people who emailed and were critical, that many did not make it all the way to the conclusion of the article. They saw the catchy (inflammatory) opening...which was designed to capture what it might look like to the average American...but didn't continue on to say that all this hysteria in the media and on the blogs is part of the problem and we need to give the current team time to get their footing. (Which was the point.)


Herndon, Va.: With your focus on economic matters, you seem to presume that Presidents have some great influence on the economy. The economic leadership we were missing was from the bankers that took on excessive risk and the Realtors that pumped the housing bubble. Doesn't it deflate your criticism of the administration to admit that the problems we face can't be fixed by government action? Your perceptions of a lack of leadership may arise from the futility of the administration trying to centrally plan a free economy.

David Rothkopf: Well, my sense is that there is a leadership crisis that extends far beyond the U.S. government...to leaders in markets, business, the media and international institutions. There is a sense not only that people failed to catch what was going wrong but that those who we trusted to understand and manage the great risks we face actually didn't understand them. The U.S. government is a piece of the puzzle...and an important one...but by no means the only one...nor will it be the only source of solutions. (Quite the contrary...)


demanding and deserving: A minor point here, but I've heard the theory "We get the leaders we demand and thus deserve", before, and I have to disagree. Certainly no one would want to believe that the Zimbabweans and the Burmese deserve their current leaders. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and by the time people discover this it's often to late to change things.

David Rothkopf: There are certainly many examples of leaders imposing themselves on their people and these shouldn't be minimized in terms of their consequences. But has been said...perhaps it was by Shaw...one of the emails yesterday mentioned it...democracy is a system of government that ensures that people get the leaders they deserve.


Munich, Germany: I think the great men of the past had an advantage that when they appeared on the world stage, there was less competition and distraction. The cacophony of Internet and cable and satellite television these days provides constant background noise that often reduces the potential awe of current leaders.

But what the old great men really did do was to ask for and receive sacrifice from civilians - "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country", etc.

David Rothkopf: You are absolutely right. That was a core point of the article. The feeling you get in the blogosphere...what I called in the article "the HTML version of the French Revolution"...is of lots of heat and no light. A new version of talk radio where everyone has a microphone and all you get is emotional noise. As for asking for sacrifice...that is a key component of successful leadership in times of crisis.


Washington, D.C.: Your article packed a punch. It captured exactly how I feel now.

My question is, isn't this inevitable given the wide democratizing tendencies of the last few decades, in which Leadership, especially a strong one, has been seen as threatening and almost anti-social. What I'm trying to say is, is what we're seeing now the result of a change away from a hierarchical form of thinking, to one in which all children are winners?

David Rothkopf: Well, I'm not a child development expert...heck, if you read a bunch of the comments yesterday posted after the column went up, I am not an expert on anything. But, as for the difficulties in producing leaders today, I think the constant scrutiny of the media (now on steroids thanks to the Net) makes it hard, our system of never-ending campaigns makes it hard, our politicians focus on gauging everything through polls makes it hard, etc. But there are leaders out there...the challenges they face today are just different than those faced in the past.


Bennett Point, Md.: Americans want government benefits but don't want to pay for them. The elderly won't allow for cuts in Medicare and Social Security. The road builders want more roads and would pave the whole country over on the government dime. Farmers won't allow for cuts and big education want more funds. The defense industry won't abide cuts. Aren't Americans receiving the government that they deserve? If America is doomed to bankruptcy, isn't that what Americans want?

David Rothkopf: I don't think America is doomed to bankruptcy...but I think we are going to flirt with it and repeated crises before we fully realize that we can't spend as we are and plan to without the direst of consequences. We are entering a new ear...an Age of Limitations...based on the fact we are an aging, indebted society that will require us to embrace very different approaches to managing society.


Santa Fe, N.M.: Seems to me that this call for "leaders" is too often a lazy desire for magic solutions.

Get busy, Mr. Rothkopf! Don't just complain! Good grief, you're a visiting scholar at a major think tank. Presumably this indicates your capability to provide solutions, not just whine that others aren't providing them.

More generally, I'd like to see both more action on everyone's part. That's why we're called citizens, if I recall correctly. And then there might be a recognition of the good things that citizens are doing, although I recognize that that goes against the ethos of the think tanks, which emphasizes, not too surprisingly, the importance of "experts" and "leaders."

David Rothkopf: I agree with your thrust. Complaining is easy. Answers and leadership at every level is what is needed. I try to focus on the answers when I write books or articles or in the blog I do at the website of Foreign Policy Magazine. I also tried via working in government, working on campaigns and as CEO of a green energy business. And as anemic as those efforts are...I really do share your sense that we all need to do what we can and more than we have done.


Washington, D.C.: As a Democrat, I find I'm relieved to have them in power but disappointed in what they do, whereas with Republicans, don't care. It seems similar to the standard with mothers who come in for heavy criticism whereas the father is golden if he's still around.

David Rothkopf: I'm not sure I follow your reasoning...I think both parties have not only come in for their fair share of criticism, they have richly deserved it.


The media haven't been great either: In some ways, it's the old complaint that they'd rather cover the politics of who's up/who's down than policy. But sheesh; there's been so little and we're spending trillions. This is a crisis, folks! (The exceptions that prove the rule are some NY Times and NY Times Magazine articles, along with some substantive debates between experts on Jim Lehrer.)

David Rothkopf: You're right there. Beyond the points made earlier, the media doesn't like to cover complex stories that are hard to point a camera at: like the burgeoning of securitization and the risks inherent in it, or the growth of unregulated international markets, or the situation in Waziristan, etc. It is all about conflict and personalities...and as a consequence none of us should be surprised that when the big stories break they are often surprises.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Regarding "Where Are the Leaders", did you noticed none of those Wall Street geniuses predicted the current stock market rally (7% increase), and won't say anything definitive about how long it'll last? Prior to this rally, financial giants like Jim Cramer and Rick Santelli bemoaned the gloom and doom words of the Obama Administration caused the market. You'd think so-called Wall Street experts/advisors would speak authoritative about looming market changes given their state-of-the-art computers, software and database expert analyses. If the only good advice these folks can give is buy low and sell high, aren't they overpaid?

David Rothkopf: Well, Wall Street geniuses aren't paid by us for advice, they're paid by their companies for making profits. If they earn profits, they deserve what they are getting. The problem comes when a system of making profits develops that pushes risk off to the future or to someone else so that financial execs can make their bonuses now...and let the chips fall where they may later. That is a disservice to everyone and that's what happened. It all became a giant game of hot potato...it didn't matter what an asset was worth, it only mattered that you could trade it off your books fast enough that you didn't get burned...and do so at a profit.


Laurel: When our current crop of governmental leaders got together, they quickly came up with a set of solutions to our current economic crisis that would sour the fewest number of voters -- raise the taxes of people who aren't born yet (i.e. borrow). Churchill and Roosevelt did essentially the same thing, although one can argue that defeating Hitler was worth it.

Has any democratically elected leader ever succeeded at telling his voters that they need to accept diminished expectations?

David Rothkopf: Democratic leaders have frequently asked for sacrifices...rationing in wartime, sending children or husbands or wives off to fight and die, putting up with inconvenience to advance justice (school busing), etc...it's hard, but it is part of the job.


Va.: In Europe, leaders are trained at their country's national university. But before they can go in, they have to pass the national tests. But to take those tests, it helps if you're upperclass with wealth. Can we do that here???

David Rothkopf: Why would we want to do that? We have a great system that enables many...if not all...to gain opportunity. There are few better examples than an African American son of a single mother who grew up facing periodic hardship and ended up at Harvard Law and in the White House. We can do better...but the path to doing better is not to adopt the failed and unjust systems of other countries.


Washington, D.C.: The previous question (referring to central planning) suggests an assumption on the part of the commenter that the government can "plan" what the economy produces, prices, etc. But this isn't the USSR in 1973. Isn't the idea that government should use its powers of regulation--and its ability to lead--to help guide the economy to benefit the private and public good?

David Rothkopf: Central planning has never worked well. But there is a role for government to play in regulating markets and in ameliorating the effects of periodic disruptions or dislocations. We have been in a period for the past quarter century when the impulse was to leave too many decisions to the markets to resolve...and the lesson here is that is just as certain a formula for pain and hardship as is central planning.


Baltimore, D.C. : Your piece echoed exactly my initial thoughts on Tim Geithner. He may be a financial whiz, but he not only looks like a kid in front of the cameras, he looks scared. Senator Bunning was unconscionably rude to Geithner during testimony and he didn't stand up for himself at all.

As for the anti-Geithner, I would submit the name of Senator Jim Webb, who had a clear-minded, direct piece in Parade magazine over the weekend on the need for prison reform. He was particularly forthright on the pointlessness of locking up people for non-violent drug offenses. Not many politicians, let alone first termers, are willing to be as blunt as Webb, but I guess when you have faced the dangers he did in Vietnam, Washington is a little less intimidating.

David Rothkopf: Webb is a strong figure...but has earned his own share of controversies. As for Geithner, that wasn't my view of Geithner that opened the article...that was my sense of how it might look to many Americans. Geithner is smart and talented. He may not look like a central casting version of a Treasury Secretary but he is getting his legs under him and hopefully will continue to grow stronger.


Rockville, Md.: We are responsible for our bad leadership. For example, Jimmy Carter was probably the last decent person to get elected President. See how we treated him. On the other hand, we swoon over Ronald Reagan. Mr. Reagan may have been a good person, but one can't deny his policies instigated the current economic malaise.

David Rothkopf: They don't make perfect people and they don't make perfect presidents. Successful systems of government...or anything...are ones that are designed to work with ordinary people in key positions because we can't ever count on having extraordinary ones.


Philadelphia, Pa.: The model of an effective leader has unquestionably changed, and very recently too. A Churchillian figure, slightly soused on port by the time lunch is served, issuing clever if hot-headed pronouncements, etc, would be a laughingstock figure today -- as our last President the self-proclaimed "decider" was.

The NYT Business section had a Q&A with the CEO of Amgen, wherein you get a very clear decomposition of modern leadership -- the self-critical, servant-leader influencer as opposed to the bombastic, narcissistic field general. Contrast David Petraeus's leadership style with George Patton's...

Fact of the matter is that Obama is creating a model of leadership for us that will endure for a generation. It just takes awhile for most of the rest of us to recognize and understand it. It's about consensus building, analysis, moving the ball in practical ways, inspiring, being self-critical -- the media is ill-equipped to explain, appreciate or even understand this for the most part.

David Rothkopf: All that you describe is true. There is of course, one added fact...you need not only to have the right style of leadership...you need to know where to go. Big government programs are not the same as big ideas if all they do is buy support, especially if they do so at the expense of future generations and national security. We are at a watershed requiring new international systems, a new attitude toward global regulation, a new social contract suited to the global era, new financial products and dynamics requiring a new kind of oversight, emerging threats, new partners who are also key rivals like China, etc. This requires new policies...and we are in the very early days of determining what these will be for this Admin and whether they will work.


Odenton, Maryland: I have to point out one error in your article: Television existed as early as the 1920s, and is not a Depression-era innovation. Most of the innovations which will highlight the recovery from this recession are already invented or in place. We need leadership that is flexible enough to adapt to changes while holding on to core values that will keep them to from shifting with the winds. Bush 43 had the latter; I worry if 44 does have core values that can adapt. So far, he's floundering.

David Rothkopf: The technology for TV existed earlier but during the depression the breakthroughs were made that made it possible for it to go commercial after the war. Many new technologies exist...although in some areas (green energy, for example) major breakthoughs remain to be made and we need to fund research and development to get there. As for Bush 43's values...well, no thanks, as far as I'm concerned. It is one thing to make public displays of personal piety...but if they don't carry into the actions of your life, the values you use in your job for example, they are empty hypocrisy.


Princeton, N.J.: I think one reason for our lack of leadership is the possibility of immense reward, i.e. greed. We need much higher marginal tax rates so executives do not have the ability to accumulate wealth that would embarrass an Oriental potentate. They make short term decisions that are bad for the US, the world and even their own institutions, but are good for their own balance sheet.

During the period 1946 - 1973 taxes were much higher. Marginal rates averaged 70%; they were 93% under Eisenhower. The economy was better than what we now have. For example, median wages went up 3 times as fast as since 1973. Also I recently saw a graph of the national debt as a percentage of the GDP from 1946 to the present. It started high, went straight down until 1973, and then flatten out and in 1980 made a sharp turn and went straight up except for a wiggle during the Clinton administration. CEOs earned 50 times what their workers earned; it is 500 times today. Staring in 1973, the percent of wealth and income taken by the richest 10%, 1%, and 0.1% has gone up at an ever increasing rate. This is a recipe for disaster.

David Rothkopf: I agree. In fact, much of my most recent book, Superclass, is devoted to this issue of growing inequality in the U.S. and internationally and the risks it poses. I'm not sure we need to consider 70 or 93 percent tax rates...and our economy is at a fundamental level much more dynamic and strong than it was in the 50s...but we do need to rethink senior executive compensation, what we let our pension funds pay hedge fund managers, and also what obstacles need to be removed to close the gap for those on the bottom.


Alexandria, Va.: I think we as a nation are too self-centered to even accept leadership. All we care about is ourselves.

Politicians recognize this and play to our basest interests. Business Executives are only interested in self-enrichment; they don't care if it comes with business success or not. The media is too corporate to even bother to leverage the good of all.

We have met the enemy and he is us.

David Rothkopf: We are better than you describe but susceptible to all the weaknesses you enumerate. We have changed values in this country with regard to the role of women, the role of African Americans, the role of immigrants, the role of children in the workforce, and the role of government. We can certainly undergo the kind of changes that will restore our focus on the community at large and on leadership that is not the institutionalization of narcissism.


RE: Your Response to Los Angeles: One solution is regulations or laws prohibiting bonus pay in stockholder or bailout companies unless real profits are achieved (not phantom profits -- profits appearing in periods bonuses are due and don't hold up later). Require independent auditors to calculate or certify profits for SEC and shareholder/public reports rather than rely on internal calculations. I don't want to stymie entrepreneurial innovation or limit real growth potential, but what these execs did getting/paying bonuses should be criminal.

David Rothkopf: No company that is on the government dole should spend on anything but investments in growth and repaying the government. Enough must be paid to senior executives to ensure we get that return on our investment (and the executive pay argument has been a little hysterical). As for the bonuses...I am in the school that was much more worried about the tens of billions that passed through AIG to foreign banks with no strings attached at 100 cents on the dollar than I was with the AIG bonuses no matter how shocking and inappropriate they were.


New York : The snarky response would be "Most Democrats would say we have a great leader, and we're sorry that you on the other side are stuck with Joe the Plumber, Limbaugh and Eric Cantor", but my take is that your article makes an assumption that people like Hamilton, Churchill and Jefferson were peerless leaders. We both know there's plenty of ammunition in the historical record that these were very flawed individuals who, in today's 24 hour news cycle, might well have lost all credibility, and been so tarnished that they would never have been allowed into positions of power at all. To give just one small example, imagine a media blitz publicizing Churchill's statement in 1915 or so that "God help me, how I love" the slaughter on the Western Front that destroyed a generation of British soldiers? End of career, plain and simple. Its different today, you know.

David Rothkopf: I often wonder how various great leaders of history would have fared today. That said, every era produces different types of leaders...Henry VIII would have probably had a tough time making his way in the colonial U.S. (although he might have done ok in Chicago politics). And...at the same time...if we have unreasonable expectations, systems that focus on ridiculous disqualifiers like minor tax mistakes or byzantine lobbying rules, or the press' bloodlust for scandal and inuendo...then we will have fewer leaders than we need or deserve.


Washington, D.C.: I was one of the people who emailed you and couldn't figure out exactly why the beginning of your piece gave such a different impression from the end of your piece. This discussion helps at least me understand that better.

What do you think are the most promising ways to remedy the situation you've described and to enable "the American people" to participate more effectively in arriving at decisions? E.g. do you think that Obama's community organizing methods (online and off) are useful?

David Rothkopf: I think that there is no easy answer. Each and every person has different skills and different avenues via which they might best pursue contributing to their communities (of every size). However, it would help if voters generally took a deep breath, stopped getting caught up in the emotion of the moment, and became better consumers of news (why not train kids to understand what's real and what's not on the web, how to be rational thoughtful participants in society, etc.) I also think the kill or be killed mentality of the political parties in the U.S. and the deeply corrupt money culture of American politics must go if we are to have the kind of public discourse we deserve and if we wish to open that discourse to as many people as possible.


College Park: The reason why we don't have Churchill-like leaders is because people won't accept leaders like that. Any leader who calls for any sacrifice, like a tax increase, does not get elected. And in Churchill's case he only came to power when World War II had already started. When he was calling for preparation for the war he was a marginal figure.

David Rothkopf: I hope you are wrong that the American people won't accept leaders who call for sacrifice. Most of the people I know who fall in the higher tax brackets that Obama wants to bear more of the burden accept it uncomplainingly. In an earlier answer I gave other examples. But we are also in a serious crisis...one that can focus people's attentions and get them to sacrifice...and to be honest, that's one of the areas in which I think Rahm Emanuel's admonition never to let a crisis go to waste should be heeded. Now is a time to change our habits with regard to energy, to conserve, to charge for carbon, to provide health care to all but understand the limitations that comes with that, to begin to shrink our defense spending, etc.


David Rothkopf: Thanks very much to all who participated in this dialogue...and to all who commented on the article and who sent me emails. As I said, I do try to respond to all emails but the response to this piece was pretty exuberant so be a little patient. Many thanks also to the Post team for inviting me to do this and for making it all so easy.



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