A politician can declare that he is a leader. His political party can declare that he's a leader. And hundreds of thousands of acolytes around the world can swoon devotedly at his feet, and he can rack up all the trappings of leadership. But none of that in fact makes him into a leader if he actually isn't one.
Crises reveal, make, and define leaders. When the crisis is over, it's easy to recognize in hindsight who the leader was, even if there was some doubt as to that during the crisis itself. Looking back, we can recognize a leader because he's the one who the other potential actors and decision-makers actually followed.
What's already abundantly clear in this crisis, however, without the need for any hindsight, is that Barack Obama has failed to lead.
Indeed, when the crisis engulfed them, those who've had the best first-hand opportunity since January 2005 to watch him try to do his job — his fellow senators, even the leaders of his own party who mouth the words about him being "the next President of the United States" and the hope of a new generation — didn't call a halt to everything and send out a plea for his personal presence in Washington. Their actions and in particular, this inaction, shows that they know in their hearts that Obama is no real leader. They know he's simply a well-cut, slick, but empty suit onto which the trappings of leadership have been projected. And when it comes to putting their own careers, their own modest places in history, on the line, they certainly didn't look to him for guidance.
The only reason for Obama's abrupt 180-degree pivot today was to provide his campaign and his party with a fig leaf: Now they can pretend that both his and McCain's presence and participation in Washington were essential to the striking of any deal. To do otherwise would be to cede the election to McCain outright.
Nevertheless: Except for the sole purpose of maintaining his campaign's dignity, Barack Obama is today the single most dispensable member of Congress.
That doesn't mean McCain will win in November. But it means that he should.