Obama, Plato and Why Leaders Lead


From Confucian China to Classical Greece to Colonial America, there persisted a dense sociopolitical question with consequence far beyond the halls where the privileged intelligentsia debated – a polemical question that when answered in definitive terms by a given society’s power brokers would determine the nature of leadership for whole generations to come.

This dichotomy was often phrased in deceptively simple terms: Should culture shape politics or should politics shape culture?

If the former, so went the argument, political leaders should be at essence Champions of the Cause, bound by honor and tradition to carry out the will of those to whom they are beholden for their power.

But if the latter, policymakers must be chosen not for their fidelity to a select constituency, but their prophetic willingness to tell hard truths and cast new visions.

Per Plato’s Greece in particular, debating the merits of the two camps of thought was not an academic dalliance; it was a rigorous, obligatory examination of political aspirants’ core assumptions about why leaders lead. It was a primer in critical thinking.

To the shame of both East and West, this depth of thought seems in large part a relic of a bygone political world in which leaders were expected to be philosophers as well as tacticians, broad of mind and heart yet versed in the gritty art of pragmatic politics.

This slackening of expectations has given rise to a brand of elected leader attuned almost exclusively to short-term problems and zero-sum solutions – a chronically distracted, “brush fire” politician using crisis management as a default governing strategy.

America has by no means been spared this reactive paradigm of leadership. State- and federal-level conservative officeholders in particular have since Reagan modeled short-term strategizing as way to command and remain in office – one of many factors for the lack of urgency over climate change.

Yet foreboding though this ongoing paucity of non-anxious leadership may be, despondent progressives should not underestimate the power of the presidency for less tangible but nonetheless important ends.

The mounting list of Obama accomplishments is impressive, inclusive of a second term reminiscent of FDR’s, so broad is its scope; causing even low-expectation liberal pundits to pour praise on the once upstart with the odd name.

But the accolades should not stop there, for while Obama’s long-term legacy for the nation includes fundamental changes that after eight years of Bush/Cheney were thought beyond the reach of a single Democratic presidency, his long-term legacy for his party – the rare, Platonic capacity to hold to the big picture in the midst of catastrophic turns – is a valuable primer for Democratic candidates in an age of brush fire Republican leadership.

Presidential legacies are fluid and fickle phenomena, subject to change with the passing of time. This president’s narrative while in office will no doubt undergo the usual series of twists before congealing.

But starting now wise Democrats with political aspirations should look beyond Barack Obama’s accomplishments and copy his uncommon capacity to keep sight of why he signed on in the first place.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister and substance abuse counselor living in Jackson, Ohio. Email donaldlrollins@ gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2016


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