04/19/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Greatness: Is it Achievable for Any President?

I've been thinking about greatness. My eye was caught by a headline in Saturday's NY Times Arts section, "Their Goal: To Regain Oscar's Old Luster." And I wondered if that would ever be really possible again. Is it just me, or are even the movie stars smaller than they used to be? Do Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and Leonardo di Caprio have the stature of a Cary Grant, a Bette Davis, a Humphrey Bogart? I ask myself whether this is simply the nostalgia of one who looks back at the past and sees everything to be bigger -- and better. Or whether there is indeed something about our culture that resists, even despises greatness? Is there something about us that refuses to acknowledge any other person to be greater than ourselves? Do we suffer from a need to bring everyone down to our scale?

I've been thinking, in this context, about Barack Obama and FDR. The system of government we have created in recent decades seems to have made it impossible for a President to achieve great things; everything must be done in small increments, with a fight at every step along the way. No grand gestures, no imperial posturing. If Obama has greatness in him, I see him in his current predicament as a Gulliver tied to the ground by a million frightened Lilliputians. And I'm unable to determine where the fault lies -- whether it's some weakness in our President, or the power system we have enabled to oppose him. I'm inclined to think the latter, because I see it in every aspect of our lives: great men and women made small by the envy and small-mindedness of those around them. I'm inclined to see it as an unfortunate aspect of a culture that worships the individual -- and, by extension, the self.

We have become so self-important, all of us. We see little beyond our own restricted horizons, what I need, what's best for me. And we scale our leaders down to fit into that world picture in which the "I" assumes centrality. They are no better than ourselves, we do not trust them to know more than we do (which is, in too many cases, little!) and will not allow them to act in any significant way. We thwart them, for fear that their power will overpower our own. The result is the paralysis we see in Washington today, where everyone Senator has become his or her own President, and every Congress member a righteous promulgator of his or her own immutable and indisputable truth.

It takes not only "leadership" to make a leader, but also a significant number of people willing to be led. To be willing to be led requires not only the inspiration of a "leader," but also a readiness to sacrifice some part of one's own sense of how things should be done. We are always eager to point to the inadequacies of others; we are slow, however, to recognize, still less acknowledge, and yet still less remedy our own. So we remain mired in the pettiness that hobbles us, and shake our fists in anger and frustration at those hobbled by that pettiness. What a sad and foolish irony, for a nation that fosters the illusion of its "greatness!"