Although he left office 22 years ago and Sunday marks the centennial of his birth, it’s still way too early to know history’s final judgment on Ronald Reagan. One thing seems certain, though: His presidency looms larger than any other since Franklin Roosevelt’s.
Many Democrats hoped the 2008 election marked the end of the Reagan era, but that death may have been as exaggerated as Mark Twain’s once was. Most Republicans actively cite Reagan as their hero, and even President Obama is an admirer of his style, if not the entirety of his substance.
TIME Magazine’s coverage of the Reagan Centennial includes an insightful article on Obama’s attempts to emulate Reagan, and conservative historian Richard Norton Smith’s adulatory analysis, which places Reagan among the half-dozen truly transformational American presidents. Although I largely share Mr. Smith’s view, it’s not my purpose here to debate Reagan’s place in history.
Rather, I’d like to make an observation about Reagan’s relationship with the business community and its relevance to the situation in Washington today. I write from the perspective of one who served, for a brief eight months at the end of his presidency, as President Reagan’s liaison to the business community.
At the Reagan White House, we did not assume that the business community was necessarily our ally, and we certainly didn’t view it as our public duty to do their bidding. What we did believe, and this actually held true for all other constituencies as well, was that we owed the business community a fair hearing.
That means we listened. It also means we talked. We certainly had a deep and abiding philosophical view that American ingenuity flourished best when unhindered by unnecessary government constraints, and that made it easier to find common ground with business.
But there were times, particularly in international trade policy, which was near the top of the economic issues of the day, especially in Reagan’s second term, when the Administration’s strong support for free trade broke down protective barriers that American business and labor would have preferred to keep intact.
In one sweeping proposal that shocked American farmers, Reagan called for the total elimination of all agricultural subsidies and trade barriers worldwide.
One of my duties was to invite CEOs and other business leaders in to meet with the president, and to prepare the president for those meetings. We would bring the CEOs into the Roosevelt Room and place the president’s 3×5 note cards at his place at the head of the table. We never knew, though, whether Reagan would refer to the cards or just tell stories. I hate to admit it, but the most effective meetings were the ones in which the carefully prepared note cards remained neatly stacked on the table.
I’m encouraged that President Obama seems to be moving toward a style of governing that is much more about listening and seeking common ground. His appointments of a new chief of staff, J.P. Morgan Chase executive William Daley, and a new chair of the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt, are strong signals that business perspectives will get a fair hearing in the White House. Combined with his moving address at the memorial service in Tucson and conciliatory remarks in the State of the Union, there is reason to hope for meaningful dialogue.
Reagan was a transformational figure who refused to accept the status quo and wrought far-reaching and lasting changes. But, as Smith wrote in TIME, “He was a practical visionary, happy to claim victory if he could get 80% of what he wanted.” That’s a pretty good model for any leader in government or business who wants to have a big impact, and to win support as widely as possible along the way.
SVP, Communications, Aetna (Retd.)
Senior Counselor, RBC Strategic Consulting
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