In order to be a good leader, Benjamin Disraeli said, "I must follow the people."
By definition, however, leaders point where their followers should go. Americans haven't seen much real leadership on the federal level since Ronald Reagan. Where there's been progress, such as on gay rights, the president only stepped forward after public opinion had shifted enough to make it safe.
For the first time in 30 years, a follow-the-voters strategy is running out of steam. This year, the electorate seems to be hungering for presidents in the mold of Theodore Roosevelt, FDR and LBJ--old-school leaders who painted ambitious visions of where America could go, who took political gambles, who anticipated challenges and explained why we had to act sooner rather than later.
The craving for leadership is evident in the polls. Though personally popular and enjoying the advantages of incumbency, President Barack Obama is running neck-and-neck against Mitt Romney, an awkward candidate from a minority religion who is seen as out of touch by ordinary voters.
What's going wrong? Mainly it's the economy. It sucks. Democrats say the president inherited the meltdown from George W. Bush. But many blame Obama.
Many people, including yours truly, warned that the millions who were evicted under foreclosure were more "too big to fail" than Citigroup. Some, like former Georgia Democrat Rep. Jim Marshall, voted for TARP, but urged the Obama administration to condition the bailout on forcing the banks to refinance mortgages and write down principal to reflect the new reality of lower housing prices.
"There was another way to deal with this, and that is what I supported: forcing the banks to deal with this. It would have been better for the economy and lots of different neighborhoods and people owning houses in those neighborhoods," Marshall said.
Voters aren't mad at Obama for not being clairvoyant. They're pissed off because he ignored people who were smart and prescient in favor of those who were clueless and self-interested.
It's too late to stop the economic meltdown. But it's still possible for Obama (or, theoretically, Romney) to get ahead of the economy and other pressing issues.
Americans want leaders who point the way forward. For example, there is a huge looming crisis: pensions. In 10 to 15 years, Generation Xers will hit retirement age.
Close to none have traditional defined-benefit pension plans. Gen Xers, earn far less than the Baby Boomers at the same age, have been shunted into 401(k)s, which turned out to be a total ripoff: The average rate of return between 1999 and 2010 was .3 percent.
If you're 45 years old and just beginning to save for retirement, financial planners say you should save 41 percent of your income annually. Half of Gen Xers live hand to mouth; the rest save a piddling 6 percent a year.
The Gen X retirement crisis represents 46 million people waiting for a savior.
Attention Mssrs. Obama, Romney and anyone else presenting yourself as a would-be leader: Show that you care about--and have a credible plan to confront--the problems of the future. If you do that--and we're not holding our breaths--we'll pay attention to you.