I have a new book that came out a few weeks ago on presidential leadership, aptly titled “Presidential Leadership: 15 Decisions that Changed the Nation. I’m claiming that as my excuse for not blogging much on this site since the 2008 election.
I mention it because the final two chapters of the book are Reagan and Obama, two topics of particular interest to the Donklephant crowd. Overall, the book is an examination of the ‘hows and whys’ of some of the most momentous decisions of the presidency, including Washington’s squelching of the Whiskey Rebellion, Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Teddy Roosevelt’s building of the Panama Canal, FDR’s passage of the Lend-Lease bill, Truman’s use of the atomic bomb, and a bunch of others.
It’s getting some pretty good reviews, I think in part because it’s a fairly even-handed accounting of the presidency and its occupants.
Which is where Reagan and Obama come in. Some have questioned how I could applaud both men — Reagan for his ‘Evil Empire speech’ and Obama for healthcare reform — in the space of two chapters.
Well, it was pretty easy. The book is a study of bold, transformative, office-stretching decisions that elucidate a particular aspect of leadership. Irrespective of what side of the aisle you sit, it’s hard to deny that Reagan’s Evil Empire speech wasn’t a seminal moment in the cold war. With that simple phrase, he successfully accomplished what no other president had: branded the Soviets as evil. And in doing so, it allowed him to redefine the cold war as morality play, with the United States on the side of right.
What I found particularly interesting about the episode was that few around Reagan wanted him to use the line. The moderates — Jim Baker, David Gergen, Al Haig and others — thought it was impolitic, inflammatory and un-presidential. Reagan felt differently, however. He had been itching for 25 years — ever since his days as a surrogate for Barry Goldwater — to expose the Soviets as evil. He had tried previously in 1982, only to see the phrase scrubbed from his speech at this last minute. But with the nuclear freeze movement gaining momentum in the spring of 1983, he decided the time was right. And it changed the trajectory of the cold war.
President Obama’s decision to push forward with healthcare reform, even after Scott Brown’s election in January of 2010, is equally as impressive, though for other reasons. He could have easily scrapped his reform plan, re-introduced a scaled back version, cajoled it through Congress without much resistance, and declared victory. That’s certainly what Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod were counseling. But the president, far from backing off, doubled-down his bet on comprehensive reform by going the reconciliation route, or the ‘nuclear option’ as some have likened it. He knew it would be contentious — and it was. And though it arguably cost the Democrats control of Congress, even in retrospect the president believes it was the right thing to do. Time will tell.