Friday, November 18, 2011

The LBJ Factor

I've watched the rapid descent of the popular image of Barack Obama since he took the oath of office.

And I've been intrigued by his apparent public evolution — from the early days of his presidency, when he was widely seen as the reincarnation of Lincoln, Washington and/or FDR, to the recent comparisons between the president and (at best) Bill Clinton following his party's disastrous losses in the 1994 midterms or (at worst) Jimmy Carter's one–term administration.

No one knows with absolute certainty what will happen between now and next November; consequently, no one knows if the voters will deny a second term to Obama or if they will re–elect him with a rousing vote of confidence.

Thus, all these comparisons — while each has certain valid points — are based largely on self–serving speculation.

Republicans would like everyone to believe we are witnessing Carter Redux — because that would mean we are on the brink of the ascendance of another Reagan.

Democrats would like everyone to believe that, in spite of criticism of Obama, we are witnessing a reprise of the Clinton years — and, in 2012, will see a reinvigorated president win a second term by approximately the same margin in the Electoral College that elected him the first time.

Time will tell if either scenario is correct — or if an entirely new paradigm is being written.

My money is on the latter — because, while history truly does repeat itself, it never seems to do things exactly the way it did before. Times change.

In other words, we might be witnessing a Republican resurgence similar to the one that overwhelmed Carter and the Democrats in 1980 — but it might not necessarily produce another Ronald Reagan.

And, even if it did, the times are different. This isn't like a TV rerun (outside of syndication, do they still do that anymore?) — or even a remake. The people would be different. The circumstances — and, hence, the decisions they must make — would be different.

Perhaps the differences would be subtle. Perhaps they wouldn't be so subtle.

Likewise, we could be witnessing another rebound of an embattled Democratic president whose party suffered massive midterm losses (or perhaps, as some Democrats have been suggesting with fondness, another "Dewey Defeats Truman" election in which the incumbent scores a completely unexpected victory), but it doesn't necessarily mean that Obama's second term would be more successful than his first.

(Actually, second terms often seem to be worse than the first. It's worth remembering that Truman's popularity really began to sink irreversibly after his inauguration in 1949, and, while Clinton was re–elected two years after the GOP seized both chambers of Congress, his second term was largely mired in his impeachment defense.)

At the moment, if I am inclined to compare Obama to anyone, it is Lyndon Johnson. I see several similarities/parallels between the two presidents.

At what may be the most basic level, Johnson was the last Democrat to carry states like Virginia and Indiana — until Obama in 2008 (Carter was the only other Democrat to win North Carolina; Carter and Clinton were the only other Democrats to carry Florida).

Both Johnson and Obama won landslide victories in the Electoral College — but so did Clinton (twice). He just didn't receive a majority of the popular vote.

Voting patterns, like poll results, are not infallible indicators of what to expect — but they do provide a certain amount of guidance in the right direction.

It is not in the voting patterns, though, that I see the most striking similarities between Obama and LBJ. It's in their priorities as president — and the public's response, via its approval ratings.

One could say many things about LBJ — and, without a doubt, most, if not all, the good and the bad, were true — but one that is absolutely undeniably true is that he was a great admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

And LBJ wanted to leave his mark on domestic policy — as he believed FDR had. He wanted to exceed what his idol had accomplished.

Oh, sure, there were contemporaries of Roosevelt who would tell you that his skill in foreign affairs was evident in his handling of American participation in World War II — both before and after America officially entered the conflict.

But you can still see his hand behind many of the programs and policies that were created to battle the Great Depression of the 1930s — and still exist today.

LBJ was raised in poverty. Such conditions strongly (and, often, adversely) affect how a man approaches the issues and relationships in his later life, and LBJ earnestly wanted to eliminate poverty. He appreciated FDR's courage in the face of a savage economy, which he witnessed as a young man in Texas and then as a member of the House. "[Roosevelt] was the one person I ever knew, anywhere, who was never afraid," he said after FDR's death in 1945.

When LBJ became president, his #1 goal was to expand on FDR's New Deal with his "Great Society."

And when he won a full term on his own — with a share of the popular vote that surpassed anything that Roosevelt ever received — it was seen by many as an endorsement of his domestic agenda, whether it really was or not.

That part probably was irrelevant because the times forced the American people — as the times so often do — to re–focus their attention.

In the 1960s, that meant Vietnam.

It may have been Johnson's misfortune to become president right when fate made foreign affairs the topic that was increasingly of the most concern to Americans, but presidents don't get to choose what kind of world exists when they are in office.

When LBJ won by a landslide in 1964, Vietnam was still a faraway land that most Americans knew nothing about. The campaign did not focus on foreign policy, but, before long, Americans were dying at a terrifying pace in the jungles of Southeast Asia, and the Johnson administration seemed powerless to do anything about it.

Much may stem from the fact that Johnson's military experience was so limited. Born in 1908, he was too young to serve in World War I, and his early life was influenced by poverty, not the battlefield.

When America entered World War II, Johnson was in Congress. He became a commissioned officer in the Naval Reserve and asked for a combat assignment but was sent to inspect stateside shipyards instead. The closest he came to actual combat was his short–term assignment to a three–man observation team that was sent to look into conditions in the Southwest Pacific.

Two years after Johnson won more than 60% of the popular vote and about 90% of the electoral vote, his Democrats suffered a severe setback in the midterm election, losing 47 House seats. The war had been escalating and, in spite of his efforts to combat poverty, Johnson's domestic agenda didn't seem to be all that successful, either — with race riots occurring from coast to coast.

(Interestingly, one of the freshman Republicans elected to the House in 1966 was George H.W. Bush, the future president and father of another.)

LBJ's popularity dropped sharply, so sharply that, even though he could have run for another term in 1968, he decided not to.

It must have been a disappointing — not to mention dizzying — decline for LBJ. I really believe he wanted to be remembered as a great domestic president — and instead he was consumed by an ugly little war in Vietnam.

LBJ probably benefited enormously from the sympathy and good will of Americans following the assassination of President Kennedy. His popularity never dropped below 60 — and often was much higher — in his first two years as president — but then began its perilous decline in 1966 after Johnson said U.S. troops should remain in Vietnam until Communist aggression had been stopped there.

And when a president's approval numbers go in the tank and stay there for awhile, my experience is that it is really hard to pull them out.

We'll never know if Johnson could have overcome those numbers. By the end of April 1966, a quarter of a million American troops were in Vietnam, and Johnson's approval rating dropped below 50 for the first — but far from the last — time. Less than two years later, he dropped out of the race for the 1968 Democratic nomination.

Fast forward 40 years.

Obama is kind of Lyndon Johnson in reverse — at least when it comes to his policy preference. He wasn't interested in domestic policy. He certainly wasn't interested — or experienced — in economics. He wanted to be a foreign affairs president.

I'm not really sure what drove him to focus on foreign policy. Critics would say it was the political angle, that it was the topic everyone wanted to talk about in 2008. But I think it goes deeper than that.

He never served in the armed forces — but that isn't unusual for people in his age range or younger. Selective service was stopped at the conclusion of the Vietnam War, then registration resumed in 1980, but it's been an all–volunteer service ever since. The most Obama was obliged to do by law was register for a nonexistent draft after he turned 18.

Maybe it has something to do with the multicultural environments in which he grew up. Perhaps it is rooted in his biracial parentage. Whatever the influence was, he specialized in international relations when he studied political science at Columbia University in the early 1980s.

Clearly, that interest was there long before it may have been expedient for a presidential campaign. And it was reflected in his Senate committee assignments when he announced his intention to seek the presidency — Foreign Relations, Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, Veterans Affairs.

And recent polls suggest that it is one of the few areas in which Americans tend to give him positive marks.

But the times don't call for a foreign affairs president.

That doesn't mean foreign affairs isn't important. It is always important, and, most of the time, the need for an international leader is sudden and unexpected — after all, even with Osama bin Laden gone, who knows when or if another 9–11 will occur?

But poll after poll after poll reports that the voters are overwhelmingly concerned about pocketbook issues, and Obama brought no practical experience in that to the White House. When Obama entered the 2008 race, the unemployment rate was about half what it is today. There were — as there always are — economic naysayers who claimed that this policy or that one would lead the country to ruin.

No one really took that kind of talk seriously when Obama launched his seemingly quixotic campaign in February 2007. In fact, the other Democrats who were lining up to run for the 2008 nomination — including Obama — were intent upon foreign policy, too — specifically, ending American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But once again, fate intervened. In the month before the first primaries and caucuses of the 2008 election season, a recession began. It wasn't clear to most Americans how severe things would get, how many jobs would be lost in the months ahead, but a recession had begun that would gather momentum and plunge America into an abyss.

The frustration has grown.

Obama isn't going to bow out of the race the way LBJ did. I don't think he is that pragmatic. He probably still thinks he can win — and maybe he can. But I strongly doubt it.

In the early days of his presidency, polls showed Obama's approval in the 60s, but, with the exception of a brief uptick following the death of Osama bin Laden, his ratings have been below 50 in most surveys for a couple of years now.

The numbers aren't quite as bad as LBJ's — and they are comparable to Clinton's — but I can't help but think that, even if Obama fights it out to the end, he faces essentially the same fate as LBJ.

Perhaps their mutual legacy is that they and the times in which they served were mismatched.

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