President George H.W. Bush bemoaned his lack of “the vision thing.” In contrast, George W. Bush was a bold visionary. By acting on his ambitious rhetoric to extend freedom, fight terrorism and wage preventive war, Bush 43 became America’s least admired wartime President since Harry S Truman. (Read it and wince: Bush’s second inaugural address and his September 2002 National Security Strategy.) Truman rebounded from terrible poll numbers after he left office because his accomplishments — the Berlin airlift, the policy of containment, the Marshall Plan, the founding of NATO and the United Nations, among others — outweighed the morass of the Korean War. George W. Bush’s war-time presidency will not be so readily rehabilitated.
Getting the vision thing right is hard. The ability to deliver a stirring speech enunciating idealistic goals is a start, but without successful follow up, the vision seems hollow. On nuclear issues, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama certainly met the rhetorical standard – Kennedy at American University in June 1963 and Obama at Prague in May 2009. Expressing idealistic long-term goals doesn’t help make them happen, however. Presidents who succeed at the vision thing manage to secure way stations along the path to overly ambitious objectives. In this regard, President Obama still has a long way to go to match President Kennedy.