In this week’s Economist, the Lexington column says that Barack Obama has been reading Lou Cannon’s well-regarded biography of Ronald Reagan for inspiration. The president could go to worse places. After all, Reagan’s party did not have control of both houses of Congress. He too suffered from poor poll ratings and bad mid-term election results in his early years in office. Like Obama, Reagan inherited an economy in a parlous state. Yet he went on to triumph at the 1984 election, carrying 49 out of 50 states.
Lexington argues, correctly, that Reagan’s experience does not provide a simple formula for Obama to follow. Nor does Lexington buy all the easy myths about the Reagan presidency. [For my take, click here.] But s/he comes to an interesting conclusion:
. . . Americans warmed to [Reagan] not just because of what he did but also because of the sort of person he was. Mr Cannon argues that his political magic did not reside only in his happiness and folksy charm. His greatness was that “he carried a shining vision of America inside him.” He had a simple belief that nothing was impossible in America if only government got out of the way. In rejecting the idea of limits, says Mr Cannon, he expressed a core conviction of the nation. Mr Obama does not share this belief, and is perhaps right not to. The idea that nothing is impossible in and for America is an illusion. But Americans have never thanked their presidents for telling them so.
In making American exceptionalism his cause, Reagan was a master storyteller, He understood, instinctively, what political narratives are about and how they work. He saw that his compatriots feared national decline, in the wake of Watergate, Vietnam, the Iran hostage crisis, the oil shocks and stagflation of the 1970s. Reagan offered them a happy ending, expressed powerfully in his ’84 campaign spot, Morning in America. Above all, he understood the need of the American people -- like people everywhere -- to have a clear sense of who they are, where they stand and where they are goig.
In his seminal book Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership, Howard Gardner argues that most leaders’ stories
address the most essential questions raised by human beings and seek to provide satisfying answers to those questions . . . issues of self, group membership, past and future, good and evil.
Gardner says that the stories of leaders are
created in response to the pervasive need to understand oneself, the groups that exist in and beyond one’s culture and issues of values and meaning.
I have long believed that politicians from moderate left and liberal parties do rather well at reaffirming their comrades’ core convictions about themselves and their political values, but are less adept at expressing the values of those “beyond the base”. By contrast, Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and it seems, New Zealand’s prime minister, John Key, are good examples of conservative or moderate right politicians who succeeded by playing back or embodying the commonly-held stories of their countrymen and women.
If he is to win a second term, Obama must break this spell, just as Bill Clinton did. He will need to offer his own “Morning in America”, complete with bold rhetoric about investing in the future and making sure that nobody is left out. If he doesn’t, someone else will come through with his – or her - new dawn, and I suspect the outcomes will be unpleasant.