A Deficit of Leadership

Originally published in Utah Business.

I had the privilege recently of visiting our National Archives and viewing George Washington’s first inaugural address. Yes, I’m talking about the real document…yellowed parchment, faded ink, handwritten cursive and brilliant content. It begins, “Among the vicissitudes incident to life no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order…” Washington had received notice that he was elected the first president of the United States. He was nervous, humble and ready to serve.

During this same visit to our nation’s capital, I felt an uncomfortable disparity between the Washington I was experiencing and the inaugural speech of the city’s namesake. Everyone within the beltway is bickering. Everyone is pointing fingers. And no one is listening. Many seem cocky, flippant and self-serving. Nowhere is this dynamic more evident than in the talk about our nation’s burgeoning budget deficit.

Elected leaders quote with ease various stats about the deficit—what it was a few years ago, what it is today and what it will be tomorrow. Deficit spending is the talk of the town in a town that loves to talk. And everyone is talking about the federal government’s spending problem.

While I admire their command of the numbers, and even share their concern about our nation’s fiscal problems, I hear something else behind their words. The deficit talk is what they want me to hear, but my instincts tell me something else. My reality radar is beeping. The budget deficit talk is veneer. The lack of leadership is the real message.

Our nation suffers from a budget deficit, but the leadership deficit is the more chronic and serious problem. Now, more than any time in my lifetime, we need economic leadership in Washington, D.C.

Most economists agree that the risk of a new economic downturn is very high. A series of painful and unfortunate events and a crisis of confidence are to blame. In the spring it was surging gasoline prices and the shocks from the Japanese earthquake. This summer it was the debt ceiling talk and an unfortunate Standard and Poor’s downgrade of U.S. credit worthiness. Now it’s the threat of more trouble from the European debt crisis. It’s been six months of bad news for an economy that was already on its knees.

Couple this economic pain with two wars, the challenge of China, an unsustainable health care system, the economic and human need for immigration reform, aging infrastructure and the constant threat of terrorism and we are a nation in trouble.

These emotions stand in stark contrast to the inspiration and peace I found in reading Washington’s inaugural within the solemn sanctuary of the National Archives building. His challenges were many—he had a country to grow—but leadership he had in droves. I’ve never felt like we needed his brand of leadership again so much.

Leadership is the ability to unite people behind a noble cause. In my judgment there is no more noble cause than to return people to the dignity of work and self-sufficiency. We have 14 million Americans and 102,000 Utahns who are unemployed. The economic costs of unemployment are staggering; the human and family costs are even greater.

Washington said in his first inaugural that he was “summoned by my country, whose voice I can never hear without veneration and love.” We will know that our chosen leaders have this same affection for America when they spend less time trying to sound smart, less time pointing fingers at people who disagree with them, and more time unifying people behind a noble cause like getting Americans back to work.