In today's prewrites for Obama's State of the Union tonight, one piece urged him to show the charm of Ronald Reagan. Despite my disdain for Reagan's policies, one must concede that he understood a lot about politics that many other presidents have not.
First of all, he realized that you had to keep your "to-do" list short and sweet, no more than three items. Make them big ones. Then do your damnedest to make them happen.
Second, he knew that Americans like both strength and charm. As an actor, even if his forte was B movies, he had learned how to project both qualities well.
Third, he grasped the essence of the style of monarchy without ever losing the common touch. He limited his appearances. He also limited his work day.
Last, maybe he was not so smart. So what? While I prefer a smart president, some of them fail to understand the office. Carter was smart and tried to manage everything; in his own crazy way, so did Nixon, who was always trying to prove to everyone how smart he was.
I've so far been dealing with style, mostly. In the end, Reagan was a disaster for this country. He began the process of wrecking the middle class, only to benefit his rich friends. Clinton was almost as bad because he bit on the trade mantra--without bothering to go through the tedious process of negotiating good terms. Bush Senior at least knew enough to end a war and declare victory quickly. It was also a war we didn't need to fight.
Bush Junior picked up every bad quality of all of the above. He gloated in his ignorance. He started wars we didn't need. What we needed was the kind of expedition that set out in pursuit of Pancho Villa. This time, the quarry would be Osama ben Laden. OK, they didn't catch Pancho. But that was the right approach anyway.
None of the tax cuts helped anyone but the rich who got them. Next to Bush II, the faults of other candidates shrink in comparison. Gore was a nerd. Edwards was a populist and populists nearly always do things to discredit themselves. We can certainly say Edwards did that. McCain was a would-be maverick who decided it was more important to get nominated.
Then there were the candidates unfairly maligned. Howard Dean was taken over the coals for raising his voice. It might have been helpful to have a former governor who happens to be a doctor as president. Hillary Clinton was either shrill or a bitch on wheels or perceived as too tolerant of Bill's peccadilloes. I think we are seeing her true qualities emerge as Secretary of State. She is a bright woman and far more disciplined than her husband, who certainly did know a lot about how to be a successful candidate.
Obama should resist the temptation to be Reagan. Indeed, communication en masse is one of his strong points. But he might be less stand-offish in deferring to other politicians. He took the Reagan mantra too far in limiting his list and emphasizing the wrong item. Back to Carville 101: It Damned Well Is the Economy, Stupid.