In an article entitled “What Would Ronnie Do?” in a recent issue of Newsweek, author Rick Perlstein suggests that President Obama should look to the experiences of Ronald Reagan for ways to deal with his current situation. Of course, Mr. Perlstein’s assumption is that the present is like the past. This is an assumption which should be questioned. This is not 1980, Obama is not Reagan, and the country (and the world) is very different.
We should learn from the past, but we will not learn from the approach that Perlstein is taking. Of course, he is not alone. Most of us are looking to the past for guidance for today, so we have the military always fighting the last war and airport security screeners alert to the last terrorist strategy. Churches do it when they think back to the 1950’s and think what worked then will work now. We can no longer assume that future events will necessarily develop as those in the past. As my friend Alan Roxburgh says, we live in a time of discontinuous change. We can no longer count on linear, cause and effect relationships (if we ever could).
What can we learn from the past? I think that Perlstein starts out on the right track in suggesting that President Obama look to Reagan for inspiration, but then he veers off into strategies and tactics. Considering Reagan, one of the greatest communicators of the 20th century, may provide President Obama guidance in some ways but not necessarily the ones that Perlstein suggests.
The things that we can learn from the past are of a different nature. As we observe what has gone before, we see not necessarily patterns of action but use of capabilities. We find leaders whose personalities, communication styles, or values prepared them to take risks, be creative, build new coalitions, and take responsibility for consequences. These are the skills or traits that allow a leader to make the most of a situation. Franklin Roosevelt is an example of a President whose abilities meshed well with the unexpected crises of his time.
The key here is personal self-awareness. By knowing our strengths, abilities, and needs each of us can be more fully prepared for the unexpected. We do not know what is around the next corner, but we can prepare ourselves to do our best no whatever what we find there.
Christians add another ingredient to the mix, and that is sensitivity to the leading of the Spirit. Such sensitivity is manifested in contemplation, community, and action but rooted in a personal relationship with God.
Will the future be like the past? Perhaps, but don’t count on it.