I know it's premature. But as I watched President Barack Obama take the oath of office for a second term on Monday, I couldn't help thinking that four years from now, it'll probably be President-elect Marco Rubio's turn.
Why do I think Rubio is likely to be our next president? Because the Florida senator has the vision, charisma, brains, and communications skills to fix the problems that will no doubt linger long after Obama has returned to Chicago.
Of course, this is not an entirely original observation. Four years out, Rubio is already at the top of what many consider to be a strong 2016 Republican bench. His background and biography (he's the son of Cuban immigrants) don't hurt. But Rubio is also a natural communicator. He could be something special. He could be a pivotal leader, someone who redefines the GOP for the 21st century.
"Senator Rubio is striving to develop language to update the American story, to become a messenger from the future," author James Strock tells me. This is high praise coming from the author of such books as Reagan on Leadership and Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership.
Here's my theory: Being elected president in the modern era requires you to be a sort of rock star. A lot of conservatives don't like this — they don't like the "cult of personality." But it's just a fact of life.
The trend probably started with John F. Kennedy. And though it has certainly skipped a few modern presidents, if you look at Reagan, Clinton, and Obama, it's clear the messenger was special. These weren't merely traditional pols who simply climbed the greasy pole of politics by dispensing patronage jobs.
This is not to give the impression that leadership is superficial. Winston Churchill was an inspiring and charismatic prime minister — and he didn't exactly have Hollywood looks. Leadership is about vision and character. It's also about persuasion and communication. The best leaders challenge us to do big things.
Our society is facing a leadership crisis. If America now demands charismatic presidents, the public is also yearning for someone who can inspire and persuade. Everywhere we turn, we see a failure of leadership and character. There is no escape. Lance Armstrong admits to doping. Manti Te'o is duped by the bogus tale of a fake girlfriend. Even our sports are tainted.
James MacGregor Burns introduced the concept of transformational leadership in his 1978 book Leadership. While transactional leadership focuses on quid pro quo, transformational leadership focuses on summoning us to our better angels.
When politicians promise things to special interests — or divide the electorate into coalitions they can do favors for — they are employing transactional leadership. When congressmen are cajoled or bribed via earmarks or committee assignments, they are doing the same. But when leaders summon us to discover our most noble calling — to sacrifice for something greater than our own personal interest — they are transformational leaders.
While too many liberals pander to voters — and too many conservatives believe stirring rhetoric is beneath them (preferring instead to get mired in the wonky weeds or to spout tired talking points) — Rubio's rhetoric is decidedly Reaganesque. "He is one of the best orators in the GOP," says Reagan biographer Craig Shirley. "It is too early to say if he will ever rival Reagan, but he has as good a chance as anyone."
Consider this excerpt from Rubio's speech at the Republican National Convention this summer:
That journey — that journey, from behind that bar [his father was a bartender] to behind this podium, goes to the essence of the American miracle. That we're exceptional, not because we have more rich people here. We are special because dreams that are impossible anywhere else, they come true here. ...
The story of our time will be written by Americans who haven't yet even been born. Let us make sure they write that we did our part. That, in the early years of this new century, we lived in an uncertain time, but we did not allow fear to make us abandon what made us special.
Chris Christie can bully and berate, but can he make the hair on the back of your neck stand up? Paul Ryan knows budgets inside and out, but can he inspire? Bobby Jindal has the best résumé around, but can he make you want to run through a wall for him?
The verdict is still out on that. Maybe one of them, or somebody else, will rise to the occasion.
But words do matter. In this regard, President Obama was correct when, during the 2008 primaries, he said — borrowing from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick — "Don't tell me words don't matter … I have a dream' — just words. 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal' — just words. 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself' — just words."
It's undeniable that words are important. Words can summon men to do great things or even inspire a nation.
Don't tell me words don't matter. Marco Rubio has the words. He has the charisma. He has the policy chops. And he has the personal story.
Watch out, Hillary. Come January 2017, America won't be inaugurating its first female president. We'll be inaugurating our first Latino commander-in-chief.
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