When Presidents Speak for the People - OZY | A Modern Media Company
President Barack Obama arrives to speak at the White House on Friday, July 18, 2014.


Presidents need to set a direction and rally support in times of crisis. They do that from the bully pulpit.

By Steven Butler

A civilian airliner is shot down and the president speaks for all of us. It’s part of the job description. Both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama had that terrible opportunity — to muster moral outrage and turn outrage into a useful outcome.

The videos here show those performances: Obama’s reaction yesterday to the downing of a Malaysia Airlines flight over the Ukraine, and Reagan’s angry response after the Soviet Union shot down a Korean Air Lines flight that had strayed over Soviet airspace. 

While the situations each president faced were different, and could explain the differing performances, it’s hard not to conclude that Reagan was the master of the art.

President Reagan addresses the nation on Soviet attach on KAL 007 on September 5, 1983.

President Reagan addresses the nation on Soviet attach on KAL 007 on September 5, 1983.

Source Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Archives

In many ways, Reagan’s task was more straightforward. He had, by the time of the KAL Flight 007 tragedy on September 1, 1983, already dubbed the Soviet Union the “evil empire.” He knew exactly who shot down the aircraft: a Soviet fighter pilot, acting under orders. Reagan sat somberly in the Oval Office and spoke directly to Americans sitting in their living rooms. And he moved masterfully from invocation of moral outrage, in plain and simple language, directly to policies to counteract Soviet power, such as vastly increasing American military spending.

While age showed on Reagan’s face, he was young in his presidency, and full of energy.

Perhaps six years into office, Obama has been wearied by a more complicated world. Russia may be bad, but is it evil? Russia may bear ultimate responsibility for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, but likely proxies did the job. Standing behind a podium, addressing reporters, the president seemed remote; smart, of course; articulate; even moving at times. But the message he delivered was nuanced (in kind terms), and ultimately complicated as he shifted subjects to the second crisis of the hour, Israel and the Gaza Strip. More professor than preacher. And Obama’s policies — searching for the truth, working with allies — seem sensible, of course; maybe even the best course of action. But they’re not quite the stuff to rally the masses behind him.

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