Barack Obama is ripping a page from Ronald Reagan's political playbook

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Monday, February 14, 2011

In his Washington speech on the centennial of Ronald Reagan's birth last Friday, his friend Brian Mulroney noted two attributes about the man he once called the best leader he's ever seen.

The first was his innate understanding of "the role" of an American president, as opposed to "the job." And the second was "an absence of malice." Reagan had plenty of political adversaries, but no personal enemies. The Reagan Revolution wasn't won on the right -he already had those votes -but in the centre. And not least there was his innate optimism about America.

It is the Reagan model of leadership that Barack Obama has been taking as his template, especially since what he himself termed his "shellacking" in last November's midterm elections.

But after the Bummer in November came Obama's December to Remember, when with bipartisan support he pushed three important bills through the lame-duck session of Congress. First, by extending the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest few, he got a bunch of middle-class tax cuts. The whole thing added up to $858 billion and amounted to a second stimulus package. Then he won impressive Republican support for a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia. And finally, Congress ended the "Don't ask, don't tell" rule for gays in the military.

The shellacking has proven to be liberating for Obama, in that, with the Democrats losing control of the House of Representatives, he's been untethered from Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker of the House.

For the first two years of his presidency, Obama seemed content to outsource his leadership role to Pelosi, resulting in a messy series of legislative outcomes on everything from health care to climate change. Someone needed to remind Obama that he wasn't in the Illinois legislature anymore. And in November, the voters did just that. In the U.S. system, the president proposes and Congress disposes.

He's also retooled his message from health reform to jobs, and reached out to the business community by bringing in banking executive Bill Daley, son and brother of dynastic mayors of Obama's hometown of Chicago, as his new chief of staff. Turning to GE CEO Jeff Immelt as an outside adviser was also a positive message to the business community, as was his speech to the US. Chamber of Commerce, a lobby that funded Obama's opponents last year. Democrats might not approve, but Reagan would have.

And on the role of the president, as opposed to the job, Obama seized the moment of the Tucson shootings in January to transform a tragedy into a unifying event for the American people. Reagan always rose to such occasions, as in his 1986 speech from the Oval Office after the space shuttle tragedy.

Obama flopped in two speeches from the same office last year, because he went on the air when essentially he had nothing to say about the Gulf oil spill and the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. He turned the bully pulpit into two process events.

But Tucson proved to be an example of what Harold Macmillan once said: "Events, dear boy, events." The unforeseen is always just around the corner.

Not only did Obama rediscover the power of words to frame an occasion, but he understood the president's role to empathize. Until then, he had never done empathy very well. Not only did he celebrate the lives of the victims, but he connected with the American people as never before.

Equally, in his State of the Union address in January his message of "winning the future" was a resonant echo of both Reagan's exceptional-ism and John F. Kennedy's vision ( "We choose to go to the moon.").

And in a modest way, like Reagan, Obama is proving that he understands the importance of the interpersonal relationship between the U.S. president and the Canadian prime minister. This has been apparent since Obama and Stephen Harper became partners in the auto bailout of 2009, and was abundantly clear with this month's agreement for a more secure and smart border.

The devil might be in the details, but with senior officials working directly out of the White House and Langevin Block, they begin with orders from the top to get it done.

 
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