Regardless of who wins next month’s presidential election, they will inherit a difficult job and a troubled world. But while there are numerous policy decisions, one thing the next president must do — regardless of ideology — is lose the ego.
A chief executive’s job is to get things done, and whether that requires carrots or sticks, the public shouldn’t accept any less. Great presidents understand this. They sometimes use their influence to go over the heads of their adversaries, and other times, humble themselves in order to get things done.
Recent presidents have mostly attempted the former and forgotten the latter. (This is likely because modern presidents are more likely to climb the slippery pole of politics via manipulating the mass media, not through the art of schmoozing and rising through the ranks.)
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As powerful as they are, presidents aren’t dictators. Accomplishing their goals still requires persuading others to buy-into their vision. This is probably what Harry Truman had in mind when he predicted that a military leader might not be able to adapt to the role. “He’ll sit there, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike – it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating,” Truman (incorrectly) predicted.
So what should a President Romney or Obama do?
Let’s start with Obama. I recently spoke with Alfred J. Zacher, author of “Presidential Power In Troubled Second Terms.” According to Zacher, only seven presidents enjoyed successful second terms (and the “successful” list includes Ronald Reagan, who was hit with the Iran-Contra affair, and Bill Clinton — who was impeached.) If Obama wants to be successful, he should take Zacher’s advice.
Zacher blames hubris for a lot of presidential problems, insisting that FDR’s second term stumbles with court packing — and Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal — both stemmed from pride. What is more, hubris probably causes leaders to believe they don’t need to reach out to adversaries. This is a huge problem because, as Zacher tells me, “eight of those who didn’t succeed … getting along with Congress was the principal reason.”
The problem is there seems to be a catch-22. Running for president requires a huge ego. But successful presidents must also humble themselves in order to succeed. This becomes even more complicated though, because once elected, presidents become insulated. As the New York Times recently noted,
[E]ven those loyal to Mr. Obama say that his quest for excellence can bleed into cockiness and that he tends to overestimate his capabilities. The cloistered nature of the White House amplifies those tendencies, said Matthew Dowd, a former adviser to President George W. Bush, adding that the same thing happened to his former boss. “There’s a reinforcing quality,” he said, a tendency for presidents to think, I’m the best at this.
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Great presidents, of course, rise above this trap. In his terrific book, “Hardball,” Chris Matthews recounts how Ronald Reagan ran against Washington, and yet, “The first thing Reagan did was attend a series of well-planned gathering sin the omes of the capital’s most prominent journalists, lawyers and business people.” (Think of how hard it must have been for Reagan to meet with the very people calling him an “amiable dunce” a few weeks earlier.)
Matthews also notes that Reagan “launched a similar offensive de charme in the direction of Capitol Hill,” attending a dinner put on by members of the House of Representatives in the House gym. ”Jimmy Carter never attended a gym dinner,” Matthews laments.
So how does Obama measure up to The Gipper? The New York Times reported in 2010 that, “It took President Obama 18 months to invite the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, to the White House for a one-on-one chat.” Obama and Romney are both introverts, a fact that might make this sort of outreach even harder. For that reason, they must bring in staff who can help facilitate the kind of outreach that will be required of a successful executive (Zacher recommends Obama take a page from Bill Clinton and tap Erskine Bowles as his liaison to the Hill.)
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So what about Romney? If elected president, he should change the tone by meeting with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid the very day he is elected. Romney should meet with Reid and Nancy Pelosi (or whoever the Democratic leaders are) at least monthly. And he should make a goal of meeting with each of the 535 Members of Congress each year.
No — this won’t avoid all the bitterness or backstabbing. I’m not that quixotic. The “good old days” were never as good as we like to pretend. As Tip O’Neill’s son recounts, his father referred to Reagan as “Herbert Hoover with a smile” and “a cheerleader for selfishness.” But it will lay the groundwork for cooperation and trust. And maybe that’s all we can ask for these days.
But Romney shouldn’t reward his enemies by ignoring his friends. He must also continue to build bridges with his base. To borrow another Matthews favorite, you’ve got to dance with the one that brung ya. So much of life is, as Woody Allen said, “just showing up” (apologies for the many cliches and maxims here.)
And so, Romney should speak at CPAC next year — and every year. Rather than phoning it in — or sending a surrogate — Romney should attend the annual “March for Life.” And he should build bridges with center-right journalists and conservative bloggers (as Tucker Carlson noted recently, we’re still waiting for Romney to grant an interview to The Daily Caller.)
Strong leaders are ironically able to humble themselves. The next president simply must be big enough to humble himself. Yes, his adversaries will want to destroy him politically. So what? Be the bigger man. That’s what leadership requires. As a wise man once said you never stand as tall as when you stoop to kiss an ass.