Like millions of Americans, I watched the president’s Oval Office address from my living room.
I’m on the younger side, but I’ve seen five presidents over the years address the American people in prime time. The first news event I understood as a small child was the loss of the space shuttle Challenger, which President Reagan eloquently mourned from the Oval that evening. I remember seeing Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Obama address the nation on matters of war and peace.
Presidents going live from the Oval Office have used that platform to inform the American public, and also to do one of the most important parts of their job: to inspire the best in us.
This time is different. We saw a president use a humanitarian problem on the Southern border, one that he himself created, to justify keeping the government shut down — in order to demand a policy most Americans believe is wrong. That is not how the presidency is supposed to work.
Safety and security are the most basic job of government. I understand that — both as a mayor who works every day to secure public safety and reduce crime, and also as someone who deployed in uniform to Afghanistan because I believed joining the military was part of my duty to help keep my country safe.
Building a wall won’t solve our border security challenges. And making sure America stays great has nothing to do with the word “again.” And it has nothing to do with fear. A great nation has nothing to fear from a seven-year-old boy fleeing violence; and even more importantly, a seven-year-old boy fleeing violence should have absolutely nothing to fear from the greatest nation on earth.
The issues at the border are just one example of the challenges and threats coming to greet us in the 21st century.
This century — and the coming-of-age of my generation — began with 9/11, a hard lesson in the threat of terrorism. Then we suffered from shocks to our economy, and more recently attacks on our democracy. There will be even more challenges like this in the years to come. We are going to need bold answers, and leaders ready to face these challenges wisely and competently.
But even more important will be how we handle these challenges, morally. What effect will they have on us? Will they bring out the best in us, or the worst?
What’s being tested these days isn’t just the nation’s safety. It’s our character. If we really care about making America great, we cannot forget that there can be no greatness without courage and no greatness without honor.
We deserve leaders who act boldly and honorably, and who challenge us all to do the same. That’s what leadership is.
Thankfully we do have such leaders emerging in our country — a whole generation of women and men who have no illusions about what America is up against, and who also harbor no fantasy that we get any safer by becoming worse versions of ourselves, by walling ourselves in against the rest of the world, or by giving up on democracy here at home.
Some of these leaders are among the newest members of Congress. Some are in state legislatures. Some are mayors. Some aren’t in office at all. Some you’ve heard of, and some you haven’t.
But the bottom line is that there is no leadership vacuum in this country, even though our country lacks true presidential leadership today. If the president cannot lead us to a better version of ourselves, then we will replace him, and other politicians who support him, with leaders who will — one election at a time.