Reagan didn’t assume his landslide was a license for whatever he wanted.
President Barack Obama’s honeymoon period seems to have ended quickly. That’s because Mr. Obama doesn’t grasp the essentials of presidential leadership. Rather than making a compelling case for his economic policies, he has resorted to curt rebuffs, such as telling House Republican whip Eric Cantor, “I won.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the same thing the same day: “We won the election; we wrote the [stimulus] bill.” This is the trope of a party that has lost its ability to make an argument.
Mr. Obama and his team would be well advised to put aside the imperious FDR model and study Ronald Reagan’s first 200 days in office. The contrast is instructive.
Upon entering office in 1981, Reagan’s team produced a 50-page, detailed blueprint for their first six months in office. The passage of their economic policy was the central objective. This report, called the Initial Actions Project (IAP), has received little attention from historians or journalists (with the notable exception of Lou Cannon). It would be highly useful for Mr. Obama to review it.
One of the main themes that emerges from the IAP report is that Reagan and his team didn’t assume that a landslide victory meant they had a mandate to do whatever they wanted. To the contrary, the report’s authors, Richard Wirthlin and David Gergen, wrote: “The election was not a bestowal of political power, but a stewardship opportunity for us to reconsider and restructure the political agenda for the next two decades. The public has sanctioned the search for a new public philosophy to govern America.”
Establishing a new governing philosophy, in other words, would require sustained public argument — something for which Reagan had an abiding instinct. Even in private sessions with Democrats, Reagan relished vigorous arguments about the welfare state. This was much to the annoyance of then House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who just wanted to cut deals.
Reagan never attempted to stifle debate by saying “I won.” The IAP noted that President Jimmy Carter “failed to realize that leadership means more than ‘laying it all out;’ it also means keeping at it.” Like Mr. Carter, Mr. Obama seems peeved that Washington won’t roll over for him.
The IAP report understood that the American people “are yet to be convinced that Mr. Reagan’s policies will work.” Relying on his skills as “the great communicator,” the IAP recommended that the president focus on “the outlining of broad strategic policy outlines, and not on narrow programs” and that his explanations be “simple, straightforward and understandable.”
Translation for Mr. Obama: Don’t go on TV to talk about the stimulative effects of “weatherization.” Even Jon Stewart thought that was lame.
Throughout the tax cut battle of 1981 — which was no sure thing right through the final vote in July — Reagan understood the need for constant argument about the substance of the matter to convince the American public and bring together enough Democrats to pass his agenda.
To be sure, Reagan’s team knew that the honeymoon period would provide maximum leverage, and that they had to move quickly before “organized interest groups regain their strength and aggressiveness.” But by handing over the drafting of the stimulus package to Capitol Hill, Mr. Obama started out by empowering interest groups to unleash their pent-up aggression.
This is a lesson in the character of the two parties. The Democratic Party has been, at least since the Nixon years, a predominantly congressional party, finely honing the means of running the iron triangle of interest groups, bureaucracy and spending. This is why Presidents Carter and Clinton came to grief with their own party in Congress, and why the more executive-minded Republican Party generally presents better examples of presidential leadership.
The IAP also warned what would happen if the economy remained weak under Reagan: “Should the economy remain in its current disarray, the administration could quickly lose control of the current economic policy agenda. By summer, ignited by a weak economy, the Congress could press for a host of measures to stimulate the economy generally and to shore up particularly weak sectors such as autos, housing, thrift institutions, and small businesses. Under such circumstances, the administration could easily find itself on the defensive, constantly opposing ill-conceived though well meaning bail out schemes. We would essentially be reduced to reacting to events rather than shaping the economic agenda.”
With Congress already unleashed in exactly this fashion, the months ahead will be grim for Mr. Obama unless he steps up his game.
Mr. Hayward is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of “The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counter-Revolution, 1980-1989,” forthcoming from Crown Forum.