I have secretly wished that Obama would channel his inner LBJ (domestically-speaking, excluding Vietnam). One of these days (months? years?) I’ll get around to reading the Caro
books volumes tomes on the subject.
Timothy Noah thinks that Bill Clinton’s NYTimes review of the Caro’s latest LBJ book was meant for Obama, and not merely Clinton’s visioning of himself as Johnson’s modern allegory.
From the NYTimes:
As Caro shows in this and his preceding volumes, power ultimately reveals character. For L.B.J., becoming president freed him to embrace parts of his past that, for political or other reasons, had remained under wraps. Suddenly there was no longer a reason to dissociate himself from the poverty and failure of his childhood. Power released the source of Johnson’s humanity.
Last year I was privileged to speak at the funeral of Sargent Shriver — a man who served L.B.J. but who in many ways was his temperamental opposite. I said then that too many of us spend too much time worrying about advancement or personal gain at the expense of effort. We might fail, but we need to get caught trying. That was Shriver’s great virtue. With Johnson’s election he actually had the chance to try and to win.
Even as Barry Goldwater was midwifing the antigovernment movement that would grow to such dominance decades later, L.B.J., Shriver and other giants of the civil rights and antipoverty movements seemed to rise all around me as I was beginning my political involvement. They believed government had an essential part to play in expanding civil rights and reducing poverty and inequality. It soon became clear thathearts needed to be changed, along with laws. Not just Congress, but the American people themselves needed to be got to.
It was hard to do, absent a crisis like the losses of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. By the late 1960s, America’s increasing involvement and frustration in Vietnam, the rise of more militant civil rights leaders and riots in many cities, and the end of broad-based economic growth that had indeed “lifted all boats” in the early ’60s, made it harder and harder to win more converts to the civil rights and antipoverty causes.
But for a few brief years, Lyndon Johnson, once a fairly conventional Southern Democrat, constrained by his constituents and his overriding hunger for power, rose above his political past and personal limitations, to embrace and promote his boyhood dreams of opportunity and equality for all Americans. After all the years of striving for power, once he had it, he said to the American people, “I’ll let you in on a secret — I mean to use it.” And use it he did to pass the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the open housing law, the antipoverty legislation, Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start and much more.
He knew what the presidency was for: to get to people — to members of Congress, often with tricks up his sleeve; to the American people, by wearing his heart on his sleeve.
Says Noah in TNR:
Clinton and Obama don’t have the greatest of relationships, and I can well imagine that Obama will bristle when reading Clinton’s review. It would be natural for him to think:Who the hell is Clinton to lecture me? I got more done during my first two years in office than he got done in eight. And Obama would be right about that. Passage of the health care bill and the Dodd-Frank financial reform, for all the shortcomings of those two laws and all the pushback he’s getting on them (from, among others, the Supreme Court) were spectacular accomplishments achieved in spite of hyperpartisan opposition and no small amount of timidity on the part of his fellow Democrats.
But, if that is Obama’s initial reaction, I hope he gets past that to consider what Clinton is saying. Obama is in many ways an excellent politician but when it comes to one-on-one persuasion he is no match for Johnson or even Clinton (the White House’s greatest retail politician since LBJ). Clinton’s tragedy is that he never was able to use his considerable gifts to effect change on the scale he’s writing about here. Obama’s tragedy may prove to be that he lacks these gifts altogether. He’s done amazingly well so far without them. But if he gets a second term, Obama’s path forward will be much more difficult. We saw in Obama flickers of what Clinton is talking about when he manipulated the GOP into supporting an extension of the payroll tax cut. Here’s hoping we’ll see more.
Let’s ‘hope’ Obama realizes the political capital he earns with a second term.