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Reagan versus Carter, Obama versus Trump

07.21.18 12:03 PM – Andy McDonald
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While attending seminars at the White House during Jimmy Carter’s administration, the late Ted Kennedy conceded that Carter was very learned, demonstrating he knew the names of every African nation and their respective heads of state. But Kennedy also found President Carter to be somewhat professorial and pedantic. Much was said in those meetings, Kennedy noted, but little was accomplished. Carter had an impressive command of facts, but he was prone to getting mired in the muck of minutia when making a decision. What the nation needed, Kennedy then concluded, was a man of action, a chief executive who could stir the nation from its miasma of doubt and uncertainty.

The American people arrived at the same conclusion, sweeping Ronald Reagan into the White House in 1980. Reagan was touted as a “big picture” man who didn’t get bogged down in extraneous facts or figures. He was thought by many to be the anti-Carter, a chief executive who wasn’t burdened with Carter’s compulsive curiosity about the minute details of public policy.

Reagan’s “big picture” approach probably had his aides tearing their hair out. Once President Reagan was to lead a discussion among world leaders about the global economy. Then-Chief of Staff James Baker assembled a briefing book in the hope that Reagan would study it on the eve of the international summit. The next morning Baker asked the president if he had studied the book, whereupon Reagan admitted he hadn’t, explaining, “Well, Jim, The Sound of Music was on last night.”

Sometimes it seems the more things change, the more they stay the same. President Barack Obama, like President Carter, was often criticized for being too pedantic, too professorial, too inclined to over-thinking things before taking action. For many people, Obama was more a pointy-headed intellectual than a leader of the free world, more inclined to promoting lofty ideals through soaring rhetoric than asserting American leadership on the global stage. When it came to foreign policy, politicos who participated in Obama’s staff meetings sometimes complained discussions had the feel of college seminars, where much was said and many concepts were explored, but reaching an actual executive decision somehow seemed elusive.

As if to reject that management style, voters (at least according to the Electoral College) chose the opposite extreme in 2016. On the heels of the Obama presidency came the anti-Obama, Donald J. Trump. Like Reagan, Trump is portrayed as a man who doesn’t seem inclined toward extensive preparation, figuring he knows what he knows, and that the force of his persona, combined with work from his staff, will somehow get the job done.

The positive side of that style could be the resolution of a decades-old stalemate with North Korea. Maybe. Trump took tough steps that may have led to talks with the North Korean dictator Kim Jung Il, eschewing the protests of career diplomats and the Washington D.C. intelligentsia. At the same time, we saw the downside of Trump’s seat-of-the-pants style in Helsinki, when President Trump seemed to let the Russians off the hook with regard to meddling in the American electoral process. Judging by the reactions of career intelligence officials and legislators, one can’t help but think a few intelligence briefing books went unread before Trump met with Vladimir Putin. And it wasn’t even Shark Week.

It has been said that Ronald Reagan wasn’t so much a candidate as he was a political movement, and the same could be said for Donald Trump. Much like 1980, many voters in 2016 were done with what they perceived as a pedantic and professorial management style at the White House. They were tired of being told that things were more complicated than they understood. They wanted action. That had positive results in Reagan's time, and maybe in the case of Trump.

The fact that Reagan was a man of action was a very good thing in that he cast aside the concerns of conservatives and reached out to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, achieving first nuclear arms reduction treaty in history. But Reagan discovered that his big picture, hands-off management style ultimately led to the Iran Contra scandal, which could have cost him his presidency.

Now we could be facing the same situation with President Trump. His crazy-like-a-fox approach to international relations could yield positive results, since Trump’s very lack of predictability gives America’s enemies pause. In the meantime, the president’s aides are probably in for many sleepless nights, since Trump’s improvisational management style also has the potential to lead to disaster, political or otherwise.

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