True leaders lead. They declare what society needs and tells it what it should want. Leaders anticipate what is possible. They open the space where long-held dreams intersect with reality, allowing progress.
The role of a leader has been clearly defined since the first time a member of a clan convinced his tribe they should follow him if they wanted to find more food. So why has it been so long since we Americans had a real one?
In recent decades, we have had two kinds of political leaders--bullies and followers. Beginning with Richard Nixon but more so with Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, Republican presidents have been bullies. Unwilling or unable to achieve the consensus of the majority for their radical agendas, they got what they wanted by any means necessary--corrupting the electoral process, lying, smearing opponents and fear-mongering.
The Democrats--Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama--have been followers, and thus far less effectual.
Obama's decision to come out in favor of gay marriage is classic leading from the back.
"Public support for same-sex marriage is growing at a pace that surprises even professional pollsters as older generations of voters who tend to be strongly opposed are supplanted by younger ones who are just as strongly in favor," notes The New York Times. "Same-sex couples are featured in some of the most-popular shows on television, without controversy."
No wonder: The latest Pew Research poll shows 47 percent of voters support gay marriage, vs. 43 percent against. (Among swing voters--of more interest to the Obama campaign--support is 47-to-39 percent in favor.)
"I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage," Obama said before the 2008 election. At that time, Americans were running 40-to-56 percent against allowing same-sex couples to wed.
I can't read his mind, but I bet Obama was OK with gay marriage in 2008. Wrongly, he sided with anti-gay bigots because he thought it would help him win. The president's change of ideological heart was painfully awkward.
"I have hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought that civil unions would be sufficient," he told ABC. "I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people, the word 'marriage' was something that invokes very powerful traditions, religious beliefs and so forth."
But now that's changed, he said.
"It is important for me personally to go ahead and affirm that same-sex couples should be able to get married."
If Obama was a real leader, he would have gotten out front of the issue four years ago, when it mattered. The truth is, Vice President Joe Biden's remarks forced the issue.
Six states and the District of Columbia have legalized gay weddings. True, the president's statement may hasten the demise of the vile Defense of Marriage Act, which blocks federal recognition of gay marriage, but it comes too late to be meaningful.
Gay marriage was an inevitability before Obama spoke. The nation led itself on this issue. The public debated and thought and finally concluded that gays and lesbians deserve equal treatment before the law.
Obama didn't lead us. We led him.