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Argument: Leadership crisis is only worsened by not passing $700b plan

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David Gergen. "A Deepening Leadership Crisis". CNN AC360. 30 Sept. 2008 - we should recognize as well that the reason so many voted against the package was that the public has been against it — and in turn, the public has not been persuaded because it has lost trust in our national leadership. And THAT is a serious problem for a democracy — one that deserves more extensive debate about why the breakdown in trust and what can be done about it.

At Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership, which I have the privilege of directing, we have taken public surveys in each of the past three years measuring confidence in our nation’s leadership. Our surveys have been done in partnership with U.S. News & World Report as well as Yankelovich.

The results haven’t been pretty. In the fall of 2005, some 65% said we have a leadership crisis in the country. By 2006, the number had risen to 69%. And last fall, no less than 77% declared there was a crisis of leadership. Moreover, 79% said the United States would decline unless we get better leaders.

Please note that this survey did not reflect just an unhappiness with President George W. Bush. It was widespread across 12 different institutions and leadership groupings. Only the military and the medical profession were given relatively high marks this past fall. Strikingly for purposes of understanding these past few days, the institutions and groups with the lowest levels of confidence were smack in the middle of this financial meltdown. Four of the five lowest rated groups in the index were business, Congress, the executive branch, and the press. No wonder the “leaders” of these institutions had so much trouble persuading the general public about the seriousness of our financial mess.

What we see today then is a leadership vacuum. And in particular, we are experiencing an interregnum in Washington, a moment when the highest office in the land seems vacant and we are awaiting a new national leader.

But we cannot assume that a new president, whether Barack Obama or John McCain, can magically wave a wand and solve our problems. It is clear that we need to rebuild leadership in institutions and groups across the board. And unless we do so, America’s greatness as a nation will be severely challenged.

How should we renew and rebuild our national leadership? That, I hope, will be a conversation in which we can all engage in the days ahead. Your views would be welcome right now. Thank you.

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