History happens in August: the 1908 birth of LBJ; the 1965 signing of the Voting Rights Act; and the 2008 nomination of Barack Obama for President of the United States.
For some time now, GOP colleague Myra Adams has implored me to write on the similarities between Presidents Obama and Johnson. Then recently, Robert Shrum penned a thought-filled column drawing the parallels. He notes two key failures that undid Lyndon Baines Johnson and that now, according to the influential Democratic consultant, threaten Barack Obama’s presidency: “LBJ never sustained an emotional link with the American people," and his decision to escalate a war "forced his abdication as president."
Our president risks following in the failed footsteps of Lyndon Johnson by starting his term with a sprint--then failing to emotionally connect with the American people. So it seems the ghost of a presidency past may haunt a man who benefitted from LBJ’s formidable legislative achievements.
It seems the ghost of a presidency past may haunt a man who benefitted from LBJ’s formidable legislative achievements.
In a PBS retrospective on Lyndon Baines Johnson, historian David McCullough offers: “His aspirations were enormous. He wanted to do something for everyone. He wanted to be the best father Americans ever had...” After his 1964 election with a record 61 percent of the popular vote: “No longer a scorned and frustrated vice president, no longer an accidental president, Lyndon Johnson was now one of the most popular presidents of the century.”
Yet all that changed. “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president,” Johnson announced in 1968. LBJ suffered through the hell of a war abroad and a threatened war at home. He lost the media who once loved him. He pushed an aggressive agenda without worrying about its cost. He misread the public’s appetite for change. And he lost the support of his base.
In 2010, the challenges are not so different.
1. The Media Love Affair Ends
The press on Obama then: “I felt this thrill going up my leg...I think he’s more talented than anyone in my lifetime...Obama carries himself in a way that suggests he means what he says, which gives him great credibility...He’s the movie star in the White House...”
And now: " I don't sense executive command...He is creating a credibility gap for himself, and if it widens much more he won’t be able to close it. ...These less-than-candid instances are emblematic of much bigger problems...passivity in a leader is not a reassuring posture...obdurately self-destructive...”
From Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream: “Television and radio were his constant companions.” Of the news wire tickers in the Oval Office, Johnson said, “They made me feel that I was truly in the center of things.”
“So heady was the media applause that Johnson believed the major media outlets—particularly the networks–were the authentic voice of the people. Their love was music to his ears,” says Tom Roeser in a Chicago Daily Observer column.
But then the music stopped. The media turned against him.
LBJ’s response, according to Goodwin: “Reporters are puppets. They simply respond to the pull of the most powerful strings...They turned against me...because it was in their self-interest to do so...” And when challenged on a tall tale, LBJ asked, “Why must all those journalists be such sticklers for detail?”
This was the “pattern of behavior that gradually led Americans to the belief LBJ was a hopeless teller of untruths,” notes Jeffrey Lord, a former White House political director.
2. Speed is of the Essence
“We have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it.”
“What good is reading the bill if it's a thousand pages and you don't have two days and two lawyers to find out what it means after you read the bill?”
“How can one estimate a cost for a bureaucracy that is entirely undefined in size and scope?”
Donald Malafronte, chief of staff to the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, during the 1967 riots there, recalled in the PBS series: “What he wanted was people to love him, and what he wanted to do was to solve everybody's problems himself. And for Johnson, he had no other vocabulary, no other way of thinking about how to help people, other than to have involvement of government in a big way. ‘Give them a lot of money, put your arms around 'em and love 'em.’”
After his 1964 victory, Goodwin writes, “Johnson felt it was necessary to act swiftly since he could not know how long his consensus would last...it produced a politics of haste...Pass the bill now, worry about its effects and implementation later—this was the White House strategy.”
His impressive record included landmark legislation on civil rights, education, Medicare, the environment, the arts, jobs training and poverty. But she adds, “There seemed to be few among the principle officers of government who were trying to determine how the program could be made actually to work. The standard of success was the passage of the bill...”
McCullough notes, “Only the president knew that his Great Society was in jeopardy. He hid the costs of the war from Congress and signed more bills.”
3. The Bill Comes Due
“Obama's approval rating hit a new low of 41 percent...support for his management of the Afghanistan war has fallen to 36 percent...”
“... the White House struggles to convince voters it is leading the economy out of recession...”
“Can a wartime president succeed without providing inspiration and expressing determination?”
“...55 percent of likely voters think the president is ‘a socialist’...56 percent of likely voters either think that the economy isn't getting any better (34 percent) or think it will get worse ( 22 percent).”
“How’s it possible that all these people can be ungrateful to me after I had given them so much?” Landslide Lyndon asked of Doris Kearns Goodwin.
The country grew tired of the relentless pictures of death in drab on the evening news and an economy out of control. The second phase of the Great Society, Goodwin notes, “made it clear that some people would have to pay the cost of helping others.” Once it became apparent that more jobs for some groups meant fewer jobs for others, that “welfare reform meant redistributing income...the choices became much harder.”
And a study of public opinion in 1964 suggested, “The majority of Americans still resisted the idea of federal intervention.”
While the economy continued to slide, Goodwin recalls, “Johnson had expected the economic arguments alone would be sufficient to persuade both liberals and conservatives to join with him on the tax increase...Fumbling with the Congress, Johnson also fumbled with the American people.”
“The public’s notions of what a president should be are affected by what is happening in their daily lives,” Goodwin notes. “A country at war wants a Commander in Chief, not an evasive manipulator. A country suffering from social and economic crisis wants a public leader, not a private schemer.”
4. The Left Turns Away
“That reality has now begun to dawn on some of Obama's natural constituency—Hollywood and the Left. The ‘ no drama Obama’ demeanor that served him so well on the campaign trail is now becoming a liability...”
“Democratic officials were hoping that after 18 months of deep frustration by many in the party's liberal base over what they believe is President Obama's watered-down agenda, the prospect of losing ground in the November midterm elections would be enough to heal wounds.”
“...his legislative successes have been large enough to fuel strong opposition but not big enough to strengthen his support.”
“...an anti-war Democrat could pose a primary challenge to Obama in 2012...”
As casualties in the Vietnam War mounted, Goodwin writes, “The percentage of Americans who approved of Johnson’s handling of the presidency dropped from 48 to 36 percent...”
“The issue was not simply Johnson’s loss of popularity, it was his loss of credibility.” Reflecting on this turning tide, Johnson admitted to Goodwin, “I felt that I was being chased on all sides by a giant stampede coming at me from all directions.”
“When Johnson continued to insist that America was making progress, fewer and fewer people believed him,“ historian McCullough remarks. “No one directly accused the president of lying; they called it ‘the credibility gap.’”
“Among many of the young, for all the misdeeds of America they found a single symbol, a primal villain.” Goodwin continues, “Johnson knew this, and it saddened him. ‘I just don’t understand those young people,’ he said in his last years. ‘Don’t they realize I’m really one of them?’”
Under siege from all sides, Johnson did not seek his party’s nomination in 1968. Then in January of 1973, two long wars ended: Johnson’s own battles with life, and the war he inherited, Vietnam.
History stretches forward, drawing these two men together.
Barack Obama accepted the nomination of LBJ’s party 100 years after Johnson’s birth. Though the man who foresaw that “a Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all” did not live to see him take the oath of office, LBJ had a vision it would come to pass.
Goodwin relates the story. One day on the ranch during his retirement years, Johnson engaged in conversation with a thin, young black boy with short, cropped hair and large ears saying, “Well, maybe someday...you’ll be the President...It’ll take a while but it’ll happen, you’ll see.”
And so it did, for a young black senator from the Land of Lincoln, some 40 years and 1,200 miles away.
As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.