Should Barack Obama Be More Like LBJ?

I’m catching up on stuff that I missed while I was on vacation, and today I read the big New York Times piece on Barack Obama’s terrorist “kill list.” I’ll have more on that later — I’m still digesting it at the moment — but in the meantime one sentence of the story caught my attention for an entirely unrelated reason:

When the administration floated a plan to transfer from Guantánamo to Northern Virginia two Uighurs, members of a largely Muslim ethnic minority from China who are considered no threat to the United States, Virginia Republicans led by Representative Frank R. Wolf denounced the idea. The administration backed down.

That show of weakness doomed the effort to close Guantánamo, the same administration official said. “Lyndon Johnson would have steamrolled the guy,” he said. “That’s not what happened. It’s like a boxing match where a cut opens over a guy’s eye.”

Like thousands of other people, I just finished reading the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson and it made me even more impatient with people who are constantly complaining about Barack Obama’s wimpiness compared to LBJ. The second half of Caro’s book is about the first few months of Johnson’s presidency, and legislatively it’s primarily about how he won passage of two big bills: a major tax cut and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. So let’s go down the list of things LBJ did:

  • Category 1 might be called straight-up corruption: threatening to sic the FBI on someone, or holding up FDIC approval for a bank merger. I think we can all agree that even if these levers of power were still open to Obama, we wouldn’t want him to use them.
  • Category 2 is legal but toughminded political bullying: threatening to close a military base in someone’s district, or telling NASA to direct spending to someone’s pet program. For better or worse, though, this kind of leverage is simply far less open to presidents today than it was 60 years ago.
  • Category 3 is personal relationships with senators, which Johnson had plenty of. But there’s no way for Obama to invent that kind of thing. He could schmooze more than he does, but he just doesn’t have multi-decade father-son relationships with the old bulls of the Senate and there’s no way he can invent them out of whole cloth. What’s more, Caro’s book makes it clear that, in the end, those relationships were of minor importance anyway.
  • Category 4 is ordinary horse-trading. To get the tax bill passed, for example, LBJ had to agree to Harry Byrd’s demand that the federal budget be kept under $100 billion. (His close relationship with Byrd did exactly nothing to soften Byrd on this point.) Obama can do this kind of thing too, of course, and he has. If anything, in fact, the big liberal complaint about Obama is that he does too much of it.
  • Category 5 is coaxing/cajoling/flattering Republicans. Obama has tried this plenty, though, and has even succeeded a bit. It was two or three Republican votes that ended up passing the stimulus bill, the financial reform bill, and the Lilly Ledbetter Act. Ditto for most of the pieces of the lame duck session at the end of 2010. But I don’t think anyone will disagree much if I say that this avenue is basically closed off. Modern Republicans are just not willing to compromise these days, and nothing Barack Obama does or says will change this. He simply doesn’t have any leverage over them.
  • Category 6 is an intimate knowledge of Senate procedure. However, it’s not clear how much this really helped Johnson, nor is it clear that Obama has ever suffered from its lack. I don’t think there are any secret levers of procedural power in the Senate that he could have used but hasn’t.

None of this is to say that Obama has used every bit of clout he has, or that a little more hard-nosed bargaining might not have done him some good here and there. Nor is to deny that LBJ had a natural instinct for finding pressure points he could exploit. But for the most part, the tools that LBJ used just flatly aren’t available to Obama. And of the ones that are, he’s used them.

So can we stop hearing about how much more Obama could have gotten done if only he’d been more willing to really use the power of the presidency, like LBJ did? There’s no more than the tiniest grain of truth to it. Washington DC is a far different place today than it was in 1964, and Obama has to deal with his Washington, not LBJ’s.


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