One explanation put forth for why President Obama and his aides are so upset with the liberal base of the Democratic Party is that they believe Obama has achieved legislative success rivaling that of President Lyndon Johnson, but the base does not appreciate this success. Even NPR’s Mara Liasson easily refuted the "success" aspect of the comparison, but the comparison to LBJ is an especially poor choice for a number of other reasons, as well.
On NPR’s All Things Considered on Tuesday, host Mara Liasson had a very interesting exchange with guest Bill Galston, a former aide to President Bill Clinton. Liasson sets up the interview by noting how the Obama administration failed in its initial assumptions when dealing with many of the issues faced:
MARA LIASSON: The president and his advisors always knew they’d have a very tough midterm election, but what’s remarkable is how many of the White House assumptions turned out to be wrong. Above all, they guessed wrong on jobs. The president’s economists once predicted the stimulus bill would keep the unemployment rate at 8 percent. Now, those green shoots of economic growth that looked so hopeful in the spring are withered and the recovery looks weak.
Galston then explains the desired LBJ comparison:
Mr. BILL GALSTON (Former Clinton White House Aide): The president’s advisors are sort of scratching their heads because, as they see it, this is a record of legislative achievement during this Congress that rivals Lyndon Johnson’s. But there’s a problem with one exception, namely, the bill to impose new regulations on financial institutions. Every one of these pieces of legislation is unpopular with the American people, some wildly so.
Liasson then explains to Galston precisely why these pieces of legislation are so unpopular:
LIASSON: And even though most economists think without Mr. Obama’s efforts things would certainly have been worse, a majority of voters thinks the stimulus hasn’t worked, health care wont work and the bailouts were a boondoggle.
So, while Johnson achieved a number of key civil rights and social welfare legislative victories, Liasson was quick to point out that the "victories" being claimed by Obama amount to little more than a series of capitulations to big business. Johnson achieved his victories through his trademark aggressiveness when pursuing his goal. Obama comes off as the direct opposite, having negotiated away many of his trademark campaign positions very early on a number of important bills. Here is how Glenn Greenwald described, as it was happening, Obama’s active destruction of the public option in the health care reform bill:
The attempt to attract GOP support was the pretext which Democrats used to compromise continuously and water down the bill. But — given the impossibility of achieving that goal — isn’t it fairly obvious that a desire for GOP support wasn’t really the reason the Democrats were constantly watering down their own bill? Given the White House’s central role in negotiating a secret deal with the pharmaceutical industry, its betrayal of Obama’s clear promise to conduct negotiations out in the open (on C-SPAN no less), Rahm’s protection of Blue Dogs and accompanying attacks on progressives, and the complete lack of any pressure exerted on allegedly obstructionists "centrists," it seems rather clear that the bill has been watered down, and the "public option" jettisoned, because that’s the bill they want — this was the plan all along.
So, while Obama campaigned on the public option, when it came time to shape the legislation, he dealt it away. That is hardly Johnsonian behavior. Just look at the two photos side by side at the top of this post. On the left, which I have cropped from photo A1467-10 at the Johnson Library archive, we see Johnson displaying his characteristic aggressiveness in making a point. The kicker is that the recipient of the Johnson Treatment in this case is his own Press Secretary, George Reedy. Compare that to Obama’s completely ineffective response to the BP oil spill. In the image on the right, cropped from this White House photo, we see Obama sitting in the very same Cabinet Room at the White House as seen in Johnson’s photo, running one of many strategy meetings responding to the spill. Obama appears to be speaking to Steven Chu, who is cropped out of this view, but he clearly has lost control of the meeting as Thad Allen absent-mindedly rearranges his note pad to Obama’s left and Carol Browner does a slow boil to Obama’s right. [Browner's anger during this June meeting takes on new meeting given this recent report on how she eventually came to be in charge of the response.] How long would Allen or Browner have lasted around LBJ when exhibiting such behavior?
While the Obama to LBJ comparison quickly fails when considering legislative "victories", it would be wise for Obama and his aides to stay away from those comparisons because of the parallels that do exist. Both Johnson and Obama came into office and quickly escalated unwinnable wars in Asia while also conducting "secret" wars in adjacent countries.
Finally, comparison to LBJ might be a bad idea for Obama since LBJ’s war escalation eventually proved so unpopular that he decided against running for a second term, knowing defeat was inevitable. Given the unpopularity of Obama’s legislative "victories", an Obama second term has become far from a certainty, despite his huge margin of victory in 2008.