US Presidents From the Whiskey Rebellion to the Tea Party Revolt


Since yesterday was President's Day, I found it only fitting to focus my column on some of the most important policy decisions that have helped shaped our nation. Nick Ragone, a presidential historian whose latest book is called "Presidential Leadership: 15 Decisions That Changed The Nation," sat down with me and offered me his perspective on some of these key economic and foreign policy events.

LL: Your book examines some of the major decisions of the presidency- from the Whiskey Rebellion to Truman dropping the bomb.

When I was reading your chapter on George Washington a lot of the decisions he faced when debating the future of the Whiskey Tax was just a polarizing for Americans as was Obama's health care bill. What lessons can be learned from these two major policies?

NR: Washington believed that the Whiskey Rebellion, if successful, would mean the end of the Republic because it would render the Constitution—and the notion of Federal supremacy— impotent. In his mind, it was too important a decision to delegate; failure was not an option. Therefore, he donned his old military uniform, saddled up, and personally led the militia to put it down. The lesson is unmistakable: for critical actions, don't delegate—do it yourself.

Obama and healthcare reform is a study in persistence. Irrespective of what you think of the bill, it easily could have died on several occasions, including the summer recess of 2009 and following Scott Brown's special election later that year. But the president kept at it. He said time and again he didn't come to Washington to do "school uniforms." He wanted something big, and he got it.

LL: You have chapters on Reagan, Ford, Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Esienhower, and Kennedy to name a few. Why not a chapter on George W. Bush? Some would say his defining moment was September 11th. Why not tackle his controversial tax cuts?

NR: All of the decisions in the book are proactive, not reactive. The Cuban Missile crisis, the first Gulf War, the aftermath of 9-11 are all terrific case studies on crisis decision making, but that's for another book.

I tried to focus on decisions that transformed or altered the trajectory of the country, elucidated a principle about the presidency, and ultimately helped shape that president's legacy. The Bush tax cuts were a close call, as were the Clinton tax hikes, but they were squeezed out by the others.

LL: What I am amazed at with Congress now is the complexity they make bills now a days. Healthcare reform topped 1900 pages where as The Constitution was six pages, the Bill of Rights was one page and The Declaration of Independence was written on one sheet. Do you think we can ever get back to less is more?

NR: Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is 272 words! It lasted three minutes. And yet it may be the most insightful document we have about the perpetual nature of our Union. Presidents and legislators used to write their own speeches, documents and bills. Today they don't even read them.

LL: In your research, what qualities did all of these leaders share?

NR: There is some connective tissue between the men and their decision making. Most of them emphasized their instincts over consensus building. Teddy Roosevelt knew exactly what he wanted to do with the Panama Canal and barely paused to tell anyone.

Harry Truman gave little thought to the moral implications of dropping the bomb. So long as it shortened the war, he was fine with it. Gerald Ford knew that pardoning Nixon would be highly unpopular, but he felt it was the best thing for the country. These weren't men who did a lot of focus grouping.

LL: Looking at the challenges ahead facing the country what does Obama need to do to lead this country forward?

NR: President Obama seems to have torn a page from President Clinton's playbook and moved to the center following the mid-term elections. With his appointment of Richard Daley as chief of staff, his vow to cut corporate taxes and federal spending, and his appointment of GE CEO Jeff Immelt to an important advisory position, he's clearly trying to make inroads with the business community.

At the end of the day, his number one priority is to grow jobs. If he can do that, he'll stand a good chance at re-election. If he can't, he may be a one-termer.

LL: It may be early, but one of the biggest criticisms of the Republican Party among GOP voters is the need for a strong Presidential candidate. Who you do think has what it takes to be a strong candidate?

NR: Two months ago, I would have said Mitt Romney. He's battle tested, strong on the economy, and seems to be doing well with the Tea Party.

But I think Governor Chris Christie may be the strongest Republican out there. He's making tough decisions in New Jersey about long-term spending—the same ones the Federal government will need to make soon. He's plain spoken, blunt, and authentic. He's said he won't run, but the stars only align once. If unemployment remains high, he may decide to jump in.


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A Senior Talent Producer at CNBC, and author of "Thriving in the New Economy:Lessons from Today's Top Business Minds."