THE BLOG
06/04/2013 09:54 am ET Updated Aug 04, 2013

Back to the Future?

Getty Images

Two iconic American companies -- J.C. Penney and Procter & Gamble -- recently removed their chief executives and replaced them with men who had previously served as CEO. Maybe there is a lesson for Washington here.

Admittedly, applying business sector practices to the federal government can be risky. Businesses and governments do not have the same raison d'etre. Nonetheless, perhaps what we can take away from the J.C. Penney and Procter & Gamble decisions is sometimes the qualities we need in a leader are ones we've seen before -- success leaves clues.

So wouldn't it be something if the federal government could do what those companies did? What if Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan could somehow be president again? Think about it.

While they had different philosophies and came from opposite sides of the political spectrum, they had critical qualities in common, many of which seem absent from today's occupant of the Oval Office -- and which, it could be argued, led to their success.

For example, Clinton and Reagan both liked people and genuinely enjoyed being president. They did not view the job as a "glorious burden." Indeed, they did not view it as a burden at all. They viewed it as exciting, an opportunity to make a real difference, and fun. They were at ease in the role. You could tell by the spring in their step that they were happy to come to work every day and relished the give and take with people from all walks of life.

On the contrary, Mr. Obama does not seem very happy in his job and seems annoyed by many aspects of it. He often looks like it is a burden, coming across as a man who is convinced he is right, expects everyone else to fall in line behind him and is irritated when they do not. News flash: That's not how it works in America.

Neither Reagan nor Clinton viewed the press as an enemy. To be sure, like practically all politicians, both felt they were often unfairly portrayed in the media and neither enjoyed the "gotcha" game that ensued almost every time they ventured into the press briefing room. And at the height of the Iran-Contra and the Monica Lewinsky debacles, each had some choice words in private about members of the fourth estate. Yet both understood and respected the role of the press, and viewed the sparring as coming with the territory. In fact, they often seemed to like it. No one who worked for them would have dreamed of secretly gathering phone records from the Associated Press or labeling a network television reporter a "co-conspirator."

Probably because they were governors, working with legislators was second nature to both men. They knew that in order to achieve their agendas, they needed Congress. The other end of Pennsylvania Avenue was not considered Mars. Neither Reagan nor Clinton needed to launch a "charm offensive" halfway into their years as president. Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan were walking charm offensives.

Even though House Speaker Tip O'Neill once said it was "a sin" Reagan was elected president, Reagan developed a genuinely warm friendship with his political adversary. The two worked together on many big-ticket issues, most notably Social Security. Reagan also forged friendships and strong working relationships with such Democratic stalwarts as Edward Kennedy and Robert Byrd. Clinton, too, developed friendly relationships on both sides of the aisle, and regularly welcomed senators and Representatives of both parties to the White House. He even got some G.O.P. votes against impeachment. And one of Clinton's closest friends post-presidency is none other than George H.W. Bush.

It is also worth noting that throughout their terms, Reagan and Clinton were indisputably the leaders of their parties. They set the agendas and their political powers were both respected and yes, feared. Can the same be said of Mr. Obama?

Hardly. He views Congress with disdain and as an annoying thorn in his side, which is highly ironic, given that he was a Senator a mere five years ago, not to mention being contrary to how the Founding Fathers envisioned our government working

Hindsight always blurs things, and we tend to remember only the good about people. A fondness for the past -- nostalgia -- tends to cloud memories. Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan were far from perfect, and to be fair, a lot has changed since they were in office. It is impossible to know for sure how they would do under the present circumstances.

Yet despite vastly different views of the proper role of government, both knew what the presidency required. They knew how to lead. They spoke from their hearts -- rarely relying on a teleprompter -- and, most importantly, they succeeded. Prosperity and peace prevailed in both presidencies. They left office as, or more, popular than when they entered. To this day, both are deeply missed by friends and foes alike.

While it will take several months, at least, to judge the ultimate wisdom of the moves by J.C. Penney and Procter & Gamble, from an employee morale and Wall Street standpoint, initial reaction to both decisions has been very favorable.

Obviously, neither Reagan nor Clinton (Bill, at least) will occupy the Oval Office again. But it might be worth thinking about what made them successful when we choose their future successors.

As Dr. Brown said to Marty McFly in Back to the Future: "Where we're going we don't need roads." Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan understood that. Does Barack Obama?

# # #

Mark D. Weinberg, a corporate communications consultant and executive speechwriter, served as Special Assistant to the President and Assistant Press Secretary in the Reagan White House.

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?