When it comes to decision-making, few have had it tougher than U.S. presidents. And according to attorney and author Nick Ragone, who works as a public relations executive in New York, today's political and media climate has made it harder for the commander in chief to choose what's right for the nation. In his latest book, Presidential Leadership: 15 Decisions That Changed the Nation, Ragone takes readers through the lesser-known dramas behind major presidential decisions, from George Washington's suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion to John F. Kennedy's race to the moon and President Obama's push to pass the healthcare reform law. Ragone recently spoke with U.S. News about how these decisions have shaped the nation, and what lessons presidents of the future can learn from their predecessors. Excerpts:
Why did you only include what you called "proactive" decisions? Aren't reactive decisions equally defining?
I wanted it to be something that the president consciously had to do. The Cuban missile crisis is amazing if you want to study crisis leadership, and so is the aftermath of 9/11. I really wanted to separate out proactive, transformative, office-stretching, legacy-defining decisions, versus responding to a crisis. They're really different things. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
What decision changed the presidency the most?
Teddy Roosevelt's [decision to build the Panama Canal], clearly. I call it punctuated equilibrium; it was like a burst . . . of change. It was part of his personality to act first and ask forgiveness later, which was what the Panama Canal was. But he viewed the strength and power of the office much more broadly than just the words on paper in the Constitution. He believed in the bully pulpit. He believed in moving public opinion. He wanted to make America a two-ocean power, a global power. He knew what he wanted, and he simply used all the means and resources available to him to get there.
Is it getting harder for presidents to make decisions with a long term in mind?
The great decisions have a longer view of history, there's no doubt about it. It's difficult to manage from poll to poll and from midterm to midterm and election to election. If you think about Harry Truman, he probably would not have fired [Gen. Douglas] MacArthur if that were the case. Truman hadn't ruled out the idea of running for re-election in 1952—most people think he had, but he hadn't—but when he fired MacArthur, he realized quickly that he couldn't run for re-election because he was so unpopular. But he knew it was the right thing to do. Could he have made that decision living with the intense scrutiny of minute-to-minute polling on somebody's popularity? [See who's been visiting the White House.]
What will readers learn about the tension between federal and state power?
Right now the 10th Amendment is coming back. The Commerce Clause is being revisited. There's more tension between federal and state power now than there has been in a long, long time, probably since the New Deal. History shows us one thing: that there's always going to be latent tension between the federal and state power. The Whiskey Rebellion was about that. Nullification was about that. The Civil War was about that. The New Deal was about that, somewhat. And now I think we're starting to look at this again through healthcare reform. It's a reminder that there's always going to be a healthy tension between the two.
What are some of the most defining principles of presidential leadership?
Don't be afraid to evolve your point of view over time. Lincoln was not an abolitionist. He came to the presidency and he said, essentially, "If I can preserve the union by preserving slavery, I will. If I can preserve the union by abolishing slavery, I will." But over time he became an abolitionist. And he realized that preserving the union and universal freedom were inextricable, and so his thinking evolved. Great leadership is an evolution of how you think. It's not, "Here are my convictions, and I'm never moving from them." Another thing that I learned—it would seem like a contradiction to what I just said, but it's not—is being decisive. Truman never wrestled with the moral component of dropping the bomb. He knew intuitively he wanted to end the war and he was decisive. There was no hand-wringing and there was no second-guessing. And the third factor is don't be afraid to get out in front of public opinion: Make your case. FDR made his case about Lend-Lease. Woodrow Wilson, even though it failed, gave his life for the League of Nations. Kennedy too [made a case for] the space race—he got out in front of that issue. There was no market for space. He created that. There's something noble about getting in front of public opinion and making a market for your idea, and we just don't see a lot of that anymore. Obama did that for healthcare reform—good, bad, or indifferent. That's one of the reasons why I put [that decision] in there.