David Gergen: Obama Is a Leader of Enormous Potential, but He Can’t Do It Alone

This year’s Best Leaders are the kind of people who can help him lead America out of our doldrums

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As the United States economy has cratered, it has become increasingly apparent that we are suffering not just from a failure of institutions but, more deeply, from a failure of leaders across those institutions. The list is long and depressing: a president who has been a catastrophe, congressional Democrats and Republicans who were looking the other way, regulators who were too lax, CEOs who gambled recklessly with other people's money, consumers who borrowed far beyond their means, and on and on.

Americans are smart enough to see what is going on. Three years ago, 66 percent were already telling surveyors sponsored by the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government that we were experiencing a crisis in leadership across the board, from government to business to nonprofits. Those numbers have steadily risen so that this fall, as the financial system began its meltdown, no fewer than 80 percent said we had a leadership crisis in the country.

The elections have inspired a great burst of hope that, at last, we have a leader in Barack Obama who can single-handedly find a path out of the wilderness. And no doubt, he can make a significant difference. He has the vision, judgment, temperament, and rhetorical gifts that mark him as a leader of enormous potential. Twice in the past century—first with Franklin Roosevelt, then with Ronald Reagan—we have seen how a new president can come to the rescue, rallying the country through sheer personal persuasion.

But it would be a mistake to think that Obama can do it alone, any more than any other president has. A country as big and complex as the United States has always depended on an array of leaders suddenly rising up to meet a crisis, not on an individual savior. Launching the country at a perilous moment, George Washington brought to his side the finest group of leaders in our history; to succeed in the Civil War, Lincoln assembled his "team of rivals"; FDR was a master at empowering others to get the work done; as the Iron Curtain descended, the men who gathered around Harry Truman nearly matched the Founding Fathers. And in each case, the nation was blessed by the emergence of bold, patriotic leaders in commerce, science, and the arts.

In truth, the country already has more leaders than most of us realize. This issue of U.S. News features the fourth annual selection of America's Best Leaders. As in the past, it identifies men and women from across the nation who are role models for guiding us out of our current doldrums. Moreover, the project has also shone a spotlight on how our best leaders are like great gardeners—they cultivate and nourish a whole lot of new leaders to grow up around them.

Battlefields. In the inaugural selection three years ago, we featured a fellow who was unknown at the time to most Americans: Gen. David Petraeus. This year, we recognize the young men and women whom Petraeus has done so much to cultivate: the junior military officers who have stepped up to the demands of battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are graduates of the Petraeus school of leadership and will be among the brightest lights of the future. 

When you have time, pause over the stories of the leaders in these pages. They will give you renewed confidence about our potential as a people. Remember Ben Carson, an African-American who grew up in poverty in Detroit, overcame everyone's expectations about his prospects, and now, as a pediatric neurosurgeon, inspires young people across the country to set their sights higher. Think about Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo, who is building a new, diverse culture there and pursuing more-nutritious products. And admire Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, two alumni of Teach for America who have created the Knowledge Is Power Program schools, one of the most successful set of charters in the country. The stories—and the legends—go on and on.

How can we create a new sunburst of leadership in the country? Well, we have the makings right here among us, as these pages show. And for all the economic darkness, there is a silver lining. As Abigail Adams famously wrote to her son John Quincy: