Erik Larson

Mar 14, 2010

The Big Idea Guys

I shelled out 10 bucks this Sunday before it was even noon (though the morning was further along than I realized, due to daylight savings time). Four bucks for a triple grande latte, and six bucks for the print edition of the Sunday New York Times. Swell.

So, failure to blog is not an option. Here goes.

The New York Times (NYT) today, in Week in Review, wonders “Is Failure Forgivable?”, referring to Obama’s “all-in” strategy on health care. A more interesting question, to me, is why modern American presidents seem almost irresistibly drawn to the Big Idea (or “Big Agenda”), which, if it fails, tends to fail “big”, too. It’s “all-in” these days for our President, whomever he is, whatever the party, it seems. Reagan served two terms on the idea of winning the Cold War (is that big enough?), Bush Sr.—the exception that proves the rule—left out Big Ideas and managed to lose to an unknown former Southern State governor (didn’t we try this with Carter?), who himself devised a Big Idea strategy, including health care reform, in his first term. (Of course we all know Clinton decided the middle of the country was safer after the “HillaryCare” debacle, and ran as a centrist for his second term).

Bush Jr. took office as a “don’t rock the boat” Compassionate Conservative early in 2001, and seemed a bit at sea, until September 11 galvanized his Presidency and gave him his Really Big Idea, democratizing the Middle East, aka his “Freedom Agenda”.

Obama, of course, wants universal health care, ideally, or at least some sweeping changes to status quo health care if the former proves unattainable. He wants bold action on cap and trade, a revamping of No Child Left Behind, a troop surge in Afghanistan (this is a Big Idea if you’re a Democrat), an overhaul of immigration policy, and on and on. And his words these days do nothing to dispel the Big Idea label. Speaking to an audience in Pennsylvania last week, he pointedly noted that the issue about health care reform “should be what’s right, not the politics” (quote from NYT). Translation: “I don’t care what the polls say, this is my Big Idea, and I think it’s right, so we’re doing it.” Sound familiar, anyone?

And so it goes. All the way back to those Big Idea Presidents who wanted to fight a war with England for independence, who fought a civil war to preserve the Union, who plunged the U.S. into the fight against Nazi Germany, who gave us the New Deal, a man on the Moon, the Great Society, and a botched, anemic rescue attempt of hostages in Iran (oh, wait, skip that one). And of course into the modern era we go with “Tear Down That Wall”, “Saddam and His Brothers Must Get Out” (of their own country), and Health Care for Everyone (this really is a Big Idea in America, because unlike in Western Europe, the notion that health care is a fundamental right is still very much debated here).

Well, good then. That’s the job, apparently. Win the Presidency, and win the right to set the agenda with your very own Big Ideas. If you’re a President worth a historian’s ink, you’ll have only one agenda, the Big Agenda. You’ll have an agenda that makes everyone take notice. Your agenda will make everyone talk about your Big Ideas. No room for wimps in the White House. The most powerful American must also have the biggest ideas (if not in substance, in their consequences for the rest of the world, at least). Why? Because it’s America, that’s why. The American President embodies America itself: he’s larger than life, he has an implacable optimism for the future, and dammit he has SUV-sized ideas. He’s a Big Idea Guy.

If this sounds a bit scary to psychologically conservative types, remember: for small idea, petty politics, we still have the Congress, after all. Just ask our Big Idea Guy.