Politics and Public Opinion

Obama and LBJ: A Comparison to Avoid

Almost ten months after President Obama’s election, his administration’s favored historical analogies are pretty clear. The Obama team really likes to draw implicit and explicit comparisons between Obama and past presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, with an occasional nod to John F. Kennedy if they are feeling stylish. And they really, really want to avoid comparisons with Jimmy Carter. But recent trends suggest another historical analogy from 44 years ago: Lyndon Baines Johnson.

No doubt this is a comparison that the Obama team would like to avoid as well. But if they don’t make a profound change of direction, doing so may become difficult. Consider these parallels between LBJ and Obama’s elections and each one’s first year post-inauguration:

Electoral: Both won decisive electoral college victories as well as solid, bicameral congressional majorities, and both attracted significant crossover support from independent and Republican voters.

The Other Party: Both initially faced a demoralized and almost comically disorganized Republican Party with no standard-bearer and little effective opposition.

Rhetoric: Both rhetorically heralded a new era of possibility and supposedly bipartisan consensus; both invoked religious themes that implicitly claimed divine sanction for their domestic policies (e.g. LBJ’s declaration that “these are the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem,” or Obama’s assertion on healthcare that “we are God’s partners in matters of life and death”).

Bill Moyers: Seriously. Both LBJ and Obama had Bill Moyers to flack for them, in the former case as LBJ’s campaign strategist and press secretary, and in the latter case by comparing Obama to both JFK and Lincoln in the pages of Rolling Stone.

Domestic Policy: Both LBJ and Obama immediately pursued massive—and massively expensive—programs of wealth redistribution and new domestic entitlements. For LBJ these were the “Great Society” welfare programs; for Obama the economic stimulus package and the healthcare overhaul.

Foreign Policy: Both inherited complicated counter-insurgency wars in far-away lands (Vietnam and Afghanistan); both pursued troop escalations in these wars.

LBJ in the ensuing years presided over a slow motion train wreck on the domestic and foreign policy fronts. The domestic “consensus” he inherited devolved into urban riots, angry backlash, and a painfully divided nation. Some of this public backlash lamentably came against his civil rights initiatives, in which LBJ’s display of moral principle and political sacrifice merits history’s praise. But many of the domestic divisions and resentments arose from his welfare state entitlement programs and economic re-engineering. These domestic tensions and LBJ’s plummeting political capital eventually eroded his ability to develop a coherent strategy or maintain public support for the war in Vietnam. Moreover, financial constraints from his domestic spending, and political resistance from his party’s left-wing, prevented LBJ from committing sufficient resources to make victory possible in Vietnam.  He eventually lost the Democratic Party over Vietnam, lost the country’s center over his domestic policies, and then lost any chance for re-election.

Few analogies are precise fits, including this one. LBJ, the “Master of the Senate,” had much more initial legislative success in getting Congress to pass his Great Society programs, in contrast with the Obama administration’s current foundering on healthcare. Additionally, the Afghanistan war is not Vietnam, and for all of LBJ’s mistakes in Vietnam, the Obama administration thus far is admirably pursuing a sound strategy in Afghanistan (and I have written as much here), in a war of arguably more strategic importance than Vietnam was.

Yet there are worrisome signs this week that at a crucial juncture, Obama is rapidly losing public support for the war in Afghanistan. And he and his administration, beleaguered by the domestic backlash against their ill-conceived healthcare agenda, seem now unable or unwilling to do the hard work of bolstering the American people’s wavering commitment to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. 

By trying to do it all at once—pursuing a budget-busting, grandiose domestic agenda along with an unpopular counter-insurgency war—LBJ unduly divided his nation, squandered his singular political inheritance, and failed in his major initiatives.

President Obama needs to avoid falling into the same sad scenario. Yet ignoring the minority party while pursuing a divisive domestic spending and healthcare agenda, in part at the expense of maintaining public support for a vital counter-insurgency war, is not a promising way to go. As my former colleague Peter Feaver has pointed out, the Obama team might even be wrestling with the temptation of trying to do Afghanistan-with-less (less troops and less money), perhaps to avoid a domestic fight with their left flank and to preserve political capital for Obama’s ambitious domestic agenda. That could point towards an LBJ-esque path of not losing Afghanistan on his watch, but also hurt the odds of winning it on his watch.  LBJ offers some poignant lessons in presidential leadership—lessons about what not to do.

William Inboden is senior vice president of the Legatum Institute.

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