President Obama has the gift of being able to make stirring speeches, most recently in Berlin calling for nuclear arms reductions and action on climate change. Few presidents have this skill. George H.W. Bush bemoaned his lack of “the vision thing.” George W. Bush didn’t shy away from ambitious rhetoric to extend freedom, fight terrorism and wage preventive war, but he made poor decisions to reach these goals. The ability to deliver a stirring speech enunciating idealistic goals is a start, but without successful follow-up, the vision seems hollow. Presidents who succeed at the vision thing manage to secure way stations along the path to overly ambitious objectives. President Ronald Reagan was a masterful visionary.
On nuclear issues, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Obama certainly met the rhetorical standard – Kennedy at American University in June 1963, Obama at Prague in May 2009 and now Berlin. President Obama still has a long way to go to match the accomplishments of Presidents Kennedy and Reagan in reducing nuclear dangers. Kennedy stopped nuclear testing in the atmosphere. Reagan secured a treaty banning entire classes of ballistic missiles.
JFK’s speech at American University 50 years ago demonstrates how the vision thing can prompt historic accomplishment. Less than 10 months after the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy sought to shift gears from nuclear confrontation to nuclear risk reduction by going out on another limb, seeking a treaty banning nuclear testing.
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This op-ed first appeared in The Hill on June 25, 2013.
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