President Barack Obama and President Ronald Reagan: “The Great Placater” vs. “The Great Communicator”

–Richard E. Vatz

President Barack Obama and former President Ronald Reagan have a lot in common, personality-wise. They respectively are and were eminently likable, generally unthreatened personalities who can and could articulate their agenda with understandable, passionate prose. They both understand and understood how to marshal public support for their policies and how to debate opponents without giving personal offense.

What is the most telling difference? President Reagan was “The Great Communicator,” and President Obama is “The Great Placater.”

In the words of Lou Cannon, the Washington Post writer who became the Reagan biographer, President Reagan “earned that title [“Great Communicator”] because of his skill at talking evocatively and using folksy anecdotes that ordinary people could understand.” But equally significant, Cannon understood, President Reagan was capable of righteous anger on occasion.

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At the 1980 New Hampshire debate for the Republican presidential nomination, sponsored by the Nashua Telegraph, then-Governor Reagan famously lost his temper. The newspaper’s representative threatened to turn off Gov. Reagan’s microphone when he insisted that several other candidates be allowed to participate, contrary to candidate George H. W. Bush’s wishes. Gov. Reagan said furiously and memorably – and effectively — “I paid for this microphone!”

Also cited by Mr. Cannon, President Reagan resolutely and memorably on June 12, 1987, demanded of the Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Again, the Reagan anger was not frequent, but no one was surprised when it reared its lovely head.

That takes us to “The Great Placater,” President Obama. Mr. Obama so lacks manifest anger that when he shows irritability, it passes for outrage. Witness his recent press conference when he was asked whether he had been able to stop smoking, and he responded that the reporter’s motivation was that she thought it was “neat to ask me about my smoking,“ but then, as he always does, he immediately lightened up: “But that’s fine, I understand. It’s an interesting human — it’s an interesting human interest story.”

President Obama’s desire to placate one and all – from Reverend Jeremiah Wright to the Fox network to conservative columnists who were invited to meet and greet the new president chez George Will in January – extends dangerously to our nuclear-acquisitive political enemies.

When Iranian reform protesters courageously protested the pre-determined election and were threatened, attacked and harassed, President Obama merely said he was “concerned.” In subsequent days, when it became clear that some protesters had been killed (and one day coincidentally after this writer had said on Maryland Public Television that the president should say he was “appalled”), the president said he was “appalled and outraged.”

The word from the President’s supporters is that he was and is concerned that displaying his outrage may make Iran (and perhaps before Iran, the equally nuclear weapon-acquisitive North Korea) more resentful of his “meddling” and less willing to negotiate.

Critics, such as this writer, opined and believed that such rhetorical accommodation was and is irrelevant: that Iran would claim Obama-U.S. “meddling” regardless. And that’s what happened. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has demanded President Obama apologize, perhaps aware of the President’s proclivities toward such accommodation. Thankfully, Obama has refused, apparently pushed too far in his placating mode.

“The Great Placater” can hurt himself with his accommodating rhetoric in domestic policy, and the world might improve as a result. In foreign policy, however, such naïve rhetoric may contribute to the catastrophe of a nuclear-armed Iran and North Korea.

Professor Vatz teaches Political Persuasion at Towson University

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