What Obama could learn from Wilson

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1. Boldness. Wilson was a man of vision. As president, his big ideas included tariff reform, antitrust law and banking regulation. He championed the eight-hour workday, federal aid to farmers and a child labor law. When WW II intruded, he proposed a military draft and a progressive income tax to pay war costs.

No less than in Wilson’s time, today’s challenges demand bold action. Obama began his presidency with three sweeping successes: the economic stimulus, the auto industry rescue and affordable health care.  As his term ends, he needs equally daring initiatives to address economic stagnation and persisting joblessness. What if he were to propose a public works program to hire unemployed youth and a renewed economic stimulus to put school teachers and first responders back to work?  What if he were to introduce legislation to bring back manufacturing jobs from overseas?  What if he were to put forward a White House plan to reduce the country’s deficit over time through spending cuts and revenue increases?  

Even bolder action is required to eliminate the looming fiscal cliff, which stifles hiring and puts the nation’s credit rating at further risk. To avoid a likely repeat of last summer’s legislative stalemate, Obama could declare the debt ceiling law unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment, Section 4 (“The validity of the public debt of the United States...shall not be questioned”) and by executive order remove that barrier to debt repayment.

2. Resoluteness. Wilson faced stiff opposition to each of his initiatives. Without his single-minded advocacy with the Congress, none of them would have succeeded. His remarkable string of legislative victories prompted a biographer to rank him as “among the greatest legislative presidents in the twentieth century.”

Obama faces even tougher adversaries than Wilson met in his day. The bold ideas suggested above would likely face determined resistance from the right. Nevertheless, the president could exercise Wilson-style leadership in his relations with Congress. He could build consensus among lawmakers by submitting his own draft bills and vigorously advocating them before joint sessions of Congress. He could  cultivate sustaining personal relationships with individual Representatives and Senators from both sides of the aisle.  

3. Advocacy.  Like Obama, President Wilson was a respected university professor and brilliant orator before he became president. He recognized the value of the bully pulpit, which he saw not as preaching, but rather as a means of educating the public on his policy proposals. He used it to gain popular support for those proposals. On more than one occasion Wilson took his educational campaigns directly to the people, on railroad whistle stops in distant states.  His final such journey attracted huge audiences and growing support for his League of Nations proposal--until a devastating stroke cut short his speechmaking.

Obama’s oratory won him the presidency, but failed to attract wide popular support for his signature programs. As the November election draws near, he needs to convince the voters that he is the best candidate to deal with the stagnating economy and joblessness.

Running for his second term, Woodrow Wilson had a slogan (“New Freedom”) and a tagline (“He kept us out of the war”). President Obama should develop his own slogan and tagline. He should deliver a clear message of how and when he will achieve both economic growth and jobs. Most importantly, he needs to exercise the impassioned leadership that Wilson used during his presidency to move the Congress and win reelection.

Hager is the co-founder and former director general, International Development Law Organization, Rome, Italy