One thing that’s so important about his leadership is that he had an extraordinary sense of timing. I think for all leaders that’s a key thing — when to make what decisions — and it depends on, in part, having a feeling for the popular sentiment of the country at the moment. In Lincoln’s case, he later said that had the issue of the Emancipation Proclamation come up six months earlier, he would have lost the border states. And if he had waited any longer than he did, he would have lost the morale boost that it provided and the extraordinary contribution that the African American soldiers made in the Army. So it almost was the perfect timing, and I think that came from his own sense of where the country was.
Similarly, Franklin Roosevelt just had an extraordinary sense of timing too. In February 1942, when things were so low after Pearl Harbor, he made his famous radio address called the map speech, where he told everyone to get a map and place it in front of them and he would go over the battles. He was so effective that thousands of telegrams came into the White House, saying, “You have to go on the radio every day in order to sustain morale.” But he said, if speeches ever become routine, they will lose their effectiveness. He knew exactly when to time those. He only gave 35 fireside chats in his 12 years as president.
I hadn’t thought about all that before, but I think that’s one of the really important qualities of leadership — that sense of timing.
Do you think this is a skill Obama has? How unique of a skill is it?
What it depends on is having that feel for the country, and I think he has it — certainly he did at the moment that he finally made the decision to go for health care, in full, even after losing the Massachusetts Senate seat. He took a risk in making that decision then. Yet had he not done it then, and done it in the way he did, he probably would not have gotten it [passed].
He himself would probably acknowledge, though, that maybe he waited too long to give his health-care speech before the joint session of Congress. It was a really good speech, but that summer is when all of the tea party’s strength had begun to gather. So the question would be: Had he delivered that speech earlier and explained more clearly what the health-care program was, would it have made a difference? I don’t know. But those are the things you think about when you’re looking back, and the great thing about President Obama is that he’s likely to do that. He has that kind of temperament, just as Lincoln did, to look back and try to figure out what he did that he could have done better.