Why Trump will never be a great leader

john mccain trump reagan axe files sot_00000225
john mccain trump reagan axe files sot_00000225


    John McCain: Trump is not like Reagan


John McCain: Trump is not like Reagan 00:44

Story highlights

  • Doug Elmets: After the G20, it is clear President Trump lacks the ability to be a great leader
  • Unable or unwilling to change, Trump continues to behave as if things should go his way because he said so, writes Elmets

Doug Elmets owns Elmets Communications, a Sacramento-based public affairs firm, worked in the Reagan White House as an assistant press secretary and spoke at the Democratic National Convention as a Republican for Hillary Clinton. Follow him @ElmetsPR. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. For a counter perspective, read Jeffrey Lord's analysis.

(CNN)Ronald Reagan's defining leadership moment came in 1987, when he demanded that his Cold War adversary "tear down" the Berlin Wall.

John F. Kennedy's happened after the Bay of Pigs disaster in 1961, when he admitted failure in a display of presidential accountability that caused his popularity to soar.
And Franklin Delano Roosevelt? His moment came a day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Standing before Congress in his steel leg braces, Roosevelt delivered a speech that made clear America's resilience and declared December 7, 1941 "a date which will live in infamy."
    Doug Elmets
    Successful presidents are many things, but above all they must be great leaders. They must possess clarity of vision and the communication skills to inspire and unite. Great leaders also surround themselves with strong advisers who have license to speak their minds, and they possess the emotional capacity to connect with the dreams and fears of those they lead.
    I was privileged to serve under Reagan, whose ability to rally Americans on the home front while nimbly navigating the international stage remains unmatched.
    Watching Donald Trump at the G20 gathering in Hamburg, Germany, this past week got me wondering -- does our current President have what it takes to lead the free world?
    My conclusion, in a word, is no. What's worse, Trump has shown little interest in rising to the occasion and learning how to lead.
    To be fair, there have been moments -- such as his recent speech in Poland, in which he reaffirmed US support for NATO and delivered a rare rebuke to Russia over its "destabilizing activities in Ukraine" -- that felt presidential. But far more often, Trump has conducted himself like an imperious adolescent, someone who believes he has all the answers and all the right moves, reality be damned.
    This is disturbing on multiple levels, but let's start with the most basic -- the damage such behavior inflicts on America's security and standing in our complicated, highly connected world.
    Trump's admirers often compare him to Reagan, noting that both men were straight-talking Washington outsiders underestimated by the political establishment. For many of us who worked for Reagan, this comparison is hardly accurate.
    From the moment he took office, Reagan had a vision, and he doggedly stuck to it for eight years. Domestically, it was smaller government and lower taxes. Internationally, the mission was about defeating communism while spreading democracy and freedom for all.
    Reagan was, of course, an ardent defender of American greatness -- remember the "shining city upon a hill?" -- and he understood that world peace depended on a strong United States. But his nationalistic pride never turned boastful on the world stage. He was restrained in his use of force, and he understood diplomacy and the importance of allies.
    Trump, meanwhile, has pursued a foreign policy that is utterly incoherent, characterized by bullying, bragging and impetuousness.
    There was the January raid on Yemen, ordered with little preparation or coordination. When the operation went poorly, Trump refused to take responsibility and blamed "the generals" for the death of Navy SEAL William "Ryan" Owens.
    Then came the cruise missile strike against Syria, which Trump reportedly ordered after seeing TV images of children killed and sickened by a chemical attack authorized by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
    The bombing did little to change the tragic realities in Syria. In fact, CNN reports that the Syrian air base the United States struck was up and running shortly after.
    And let's not forget Trump's appalling interactions with some of America's most important global partners. His testy phone calls with the leaders of Mexico and Australia were downright bizarre, with Trump barking at Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull about a refugee agreement and boasting about the size of his electoral college win.
    And Trump's initial meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was awkward at best. Among other highlights, Trump ignored Merkel's request for a handshake from Oval Office photographers and made an odd quip about wiretapping that left Merkel visibly puzzled.
    With regard to Asia, the administration's zigging and zagging has been particularly perilous. Under President Barack Obama, the United States undertook a delicate rebalancing of Asian relations that included the negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral trade deal that would have created new opportunities for US exporters in agriculture, services and high-end manufacturing, as well as other economic benefits.
    Trump tore that up, and his approach to China has ranged from vague Twitter threats to what looked like a budding bromance with President Xi Jinping at a Mar-a-Lago meeting in April. After North Korea launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile on July 4, Trump did another 360, taking to Twitter to criticize China for not doing enough -- even though the country is integral to efforts to rein in Kim Jong Un.
    The costs of his errant judgment were plain to see at the G20 summit, where our most important economic and strategic allies effectively ostracized the United States on everything from trade to climate change and immigration. It is true that Trump held bilateral meetings with the leaders of Britain, China and Turkey, as well as a highly anticipated tete-a-tete with Russia's Vladimir Putin. But those meetings could not alter the fact that Trump's protectionist "America first" crusade has left the United States isolated.
    Watching the spectacle from afar, I found myself missing the Gipper. During Reagan's first term, he talked tough and even engaged in a bit of name-calling -- dubbing the Soviet Union the "evil empire" -- while wrestling with his biggest foreign policy challenge. He was also a fervent critic of arms control during the height of the nuclear arms race.
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    But by his second term, Reagan was engaged in a crucial disarmament dialogue with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan saw that Gorbachev's goals could benefit American interests, so he dialed back his hawkish impulses to begin a more pragmatic, mutually respectful relationship with the Soviet leader.
    That was Reagan's way -- adapt when necessary and press forward with optimism. And it paid off handsomely for our nation, not just with a reduced nuclear arsenal but through stabilization of Social Security, a strong Federal Reserve, low inflation and tax cuts.
    Will Trump eventually understand that true leadership is about more than chest thumping and arrogant posturing?
    I'm not holding my breath.
    Trump has shown that a leadership style that might have worked during his previous life as a corporate czar does not translate well in the White House. Unable or unwilling to change, Trump continues to behave as if things should go his way just because he says so.