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Why timing is everything for a successful president: a Q&A with H.W. Brands

In his upcoming talk “How to Be a Great President in Six Easy Steps” at the LBJ School of Public Affairs Leadership Lecture Series, the two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist will discuss what it takes to become the next chief executive of the United States.

Posted: October 23, 2010
Prof. H.W. Brands

Prof. H.W. Brands

H.W. Brands, the Dickson Allen Anderson Centennial Professor of History, has written more than 20 books on such presidents as Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt. We caught up with the best-selling author for a chat about what President Obama could learn from Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy, and why successful presidents must be a half-step — not a full step — ahead of the times.

Q: In your book, Traitor to His Class, you called Franklin Delano Roosevelt the greatest president of the 20th century and said he has had the biggest impact on the lives of Americans past and present. What are some lessons President Obama could learn from FDR?

A: It’s hard to say because what gave Roosevelt the opportunity to have that large of an impact were two great crises that happened in the United States while he was president. First was the Great Depression of the 1930s; the second was World War II. American presidents have an unusual scope for changing the direction of the country when it’s in the middle of a crisis. President Obama entered office during a time when it looked as though the country might be on the brink of a new Great Depression. However, it hasn’t turned out that way. The country is in a recession and seems to be struggling to pull its way out. Without the challenge of the recession, President Obama wouldn’t have managed to get the economic stimulus package through Congress. But because this crisis isn’t anywhere as deep as the crisis during the 1930s, he’s really limited in what the political system will let him do.

Q: You mentioned that successful presidents are well-suited to their time in history, and that a president can become a great leader by being a half-step ahead of his time. Could you give me an example of how Franklin Roosevelt was just a half-step ahead of his time?

A. Franklin Roosevelt was a half-step ahead of his time because he wasn’t too far ahead of the people he was leading. He understood that the principal battle he had to fight was the economic depression. He was urged by his liberal advisers, including his wife Eleanor Roosevelt, to throw the weight of the presidency behind civil rights reform as well a federal anti-lynching law. He believed — and I think he was right in this belief — that the political system couldn’t withstand that kind of change on two fronts at once. He thought the economic depression took precedence and left civil rights reform to later generations.

Q: Do you think President Obama is a half-step ahead of his time, or perhaps too far ahead?

A: It’s a little bit hard to tell. He might be too far ahead of his time. At a time like this the country doesn’t seem willing to take the kind of direction he wants it to take. By my yardstick, he might be three quarters ahead, which might be too far. Americans seem reluctant to follow him in the direction he wants to go.

Q: What are President Obama’s greatest strengths and weaknesses?

A: He’s very good at articulating the problems facing the country and solutions to the problems. His speeches are models of exposition and explication. His greatest weakness is his inability to motivate people emotionally. He’s very good at explaining things; he’s less good at inspiring people. FDR was very good at inspiring people. He could get people passionate in the positive pursuit of things. And he could make people very angry in their negative aversion to things they should avoid.

Q: In your talk at the Fall Leadership Lecture Series, you will be discussing the six steps to becoming a great president. Could you give me an example of how one of these steps could apply to being a leader in other fields like business or law?

A: The rules that you apply to presidents do not apply to leaders in the private sector. One of the reasons why business leaders get frustrated when they go into politics is because they think politics is or ought to be like the private sector. The difference is, leaders in the private sector can hire and fire people. Presidents can’t hire or fire members of Congress; they have to operate on persuasion. Leaders in the private sector or in the military can operate more by coercion. If they have a brilliant idea, they can be a full step ahead of their times and that wouldn’t be a problem.

H.W. Brands will be a speaker in the Leadership Lecture Series. The talk, scheduled to take place Thursday, Oct. 21, has been rescheduled for Thursday, Nov. 11 from noon-1 p.m. in Bass Lecture Hall, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, 2315 Red River St.

Learn more about this and other Leadership Lecture Series events.

Story by: Jessica Sinn

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