Thursday, August 21, 2014

Why can't Obama be more like LBJ?

In context with what I wrote yesterday, this is a great piece by Matt Bai.  I don't agree with all of it -- especially the familiar dismissal by non-Texas pundits of Rick Perry's felony indictments -- but some other points are salient.

The problem with Barack Obama, people are always telling me these days, is that he just doesn't love the full contact sport of politics. He has no capacity for the inside machinations or tactical brutality we associate with a more sophisticated and celebrated president like Lyndon Johnson.

What we really need, I guess, is an executive in the mold of a Chris Christie or an Andrew Cuomo or a Rick Perry, all of whom are more extroverted and more brazen about wielding their power as governors than Obama is — and all of whom, not incidentally, are now fending off prosecutors and investigations while scrambling to keep their national ambitions afloat.

And this illustrates an interesting paradox of modern politics: We love this idea of the ruthless and effective political operator, right up until the moment we're confronted by the reality.

Is this really what "we" want?  I just want an effective progressive manager.  I don't want any coolly detached, above-the-fray, aloof executives any more than I want a war-mongering bully/asshole like those three mentioned.  In fact, Hillary Clinton seems to strike the right balance between those two spots -- without enough of the 'progressive' part I would like.  But I digress.

But there's a common theme in all of this, which is that all three governors were doing exactly the thing Obama's Democratic detractors and sympathetic commentators so often pound him for not doing — stretching the boundaries of your authority in order to outmaneuver adversaries and ultimately get your way. (Ironically, it's also the thing Republicans insist Obama actually does too often, which is why they're suing him, but that's another story.)

And there's my point: Republicans want this sort of jerk.  They like jerks.  Nobody else does.

You want the kind of elected executive who's going to make the machine work the way he wants it to, even if he has to grab a sledgehammer and bang a few parts into place? Well, this is what it looks like. It's not especially ennobling, and it never was.

Lately there's a lot of admiration for Johnson, who's often portrayed, in this age of entrenched dysfunction and colorless politicians, as a charismatic, needy rogue who knew how to make Washington work. The truth is that the things Johnson did for the purpose of amassing power would make Rick Perry quiver like a little girl.

No, not the sledgehammer, thanks.  Not even a rubber mallet.

Bai goes on to share a recent conversation he had with LBJ biographer Robert Caro, who is working on a fifth installment of the mercurial '60's-era Texan and CIC.  Caro's volumes are the definitive interpretation of the man, his presidency, and his effects on the nation.

Yet somehow Johnson is the president we'd like Obama to be. And Perry is just a perp.


Today's embattled governors, too, have done their share of intimidating in the service of significant accomplishments; Christie won bipartisan compromise of a controversial plan to reform public pensions, and Cuomo did the same on gay marriage. But what gets the most attention are the petty transgressions that come with no higher purpose.

What we want, apparently, is a swaggering politician who can be maniacally manipulative when it comes to the big and noble stuff, but who can simply switch it off when the stakes aren't as grand. Good luck with that.

Nope, still don't want that.  An effective negotiator -- the kind of horse-trading that most people at the fringes despise, as manifested in the ritualistic purge of the least conservative Republican in their primary elections.  But Bai is right that we'll never get that sort of person elected anyway... his, or mine.

At this point, 40 years after Nixon resigned, our distrust for politicians and our political institutions is so profound and ingrained in the culture that it's hard to imagine our giving any elected leader the license to scheme that Johnson enjoyed. And in this moment of the 60-second news cycle, when every backroom confrontation seems to spill into public view instantaneously, the sordid means of politics almost always overwhelm the end.

If our idealized version of Johnson himself suddenly came back to life and reappeared on the scene today, we wouldn't admire him as roguishly competent. We'd probably refer him to a grand jury.

It may be, as Caro suggests, that lesser politicians simply get less latitude. "Real political genius doesn't come along very often," he told me. "How long has it been since we had a leader who not only enunciated what government should do and laid our specific ends that people could unite behind, but also had the tactics and the determination to achieve those ends?"

But it might also be that if Obama really were this type of political genius, we'd reject and revile him. Such is the contradiction in our politics. We pine for leaders who strong-arm the system, just as long as they don't get caught.

I don't think we -- and by 'we', I mean the people who will elect Hillary Clinton in 2016 -- pine for that at all, Matt.  And I also don't mean to suggest that I will be helping Hillary Clinton get elected, because I won't.

Obama, like Bush before him, has coalesced power and authority in the executive branch.  It's not quite unitary executive stuff, but it's close, especially as it relates to his drone kill list.  What he does most effectively is manage around the intransigence of the legislative branch by utilizing executive orders.  He will do so shortly with regard to the unyielding Congressional obstinance of necessary and long-overdue immigration reform.  This should be a good thing, from a policy perspective as well as a political one.

If that action gets received well -- the hardest part will be enduring the conservative caterwauling about 'amnesty' -- it could lift the fortunes of Democrats in the midterms by enthusing the long-awaited Latino turnout.  That would also be a good thing, and just in the nick of time.

Update: Carla Seaquist has more good advice for the president in this regard.

See?  I don't hate Obama completely.  I just want him to be a better president.


Greg said...

"Why can't Obama be more like LBJ?"

How about I give you the sort of answer that LBJ would have given -- Obama lacks the balls (and the smarts and the people skills) that it takes to be an LBJ.

Think about it -- LBJ was willing to hang his out there and risk letting them get chopped off in order to win a political battle. When has Obama been willing to take those sort of risks? Never!

And while Obama may be book smart, he lacks the sort of intelligence necessary to see what needs to be done in order to get what he wants done. LBJ did -- which is why when he let his hang out on the chop[ping block, he always knew that they were not ACTUALLY going to get cut off.

And then there are people skills. Obama does not know how to work the Congress, because he spent no time there and because he isn't good with people in a one-on-one setting. He exp[ects things to get done because he wants them done and they therefore should happen. LBJ would get in there and arm-twist and even get his opponents to join him -- Obama declares "I won" and expects everyone to fall over for him.

I'll specifically point to the current situation with the Supreme Court. Obama wants desperately to get one more nominee on the court, but can't get one, even though there are two very senior justices of his party (one in particular) who are of an age to retire and would give him last chance to put his stamp on the Court with a Democrat Senate. Johnson succeeded in doing that by putting Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court, effectively compelling Tom Clark's resignation by making his son Attorney General. Then he nearly succeeded in in putting arch-liberal jurist Abe Fortas in the Chief Justice seat despite Fortas being an unwilling candidate for the position. Obama would lack both the balls and the imagination to pull off such moves.

PDiddie said...

I'm thinking that you didn't finish reading the post before you began your (fairly long-winded) rant.

Greg said...

I did read it -- I just disagree with the conclusion.

And I'm not ranting -- I'm just noting the fundamental difference in personalities and skill sets these two men. LBJ was a man of action -- Obama is a man of words (provided they are fed to him through a teleprompter). Whereas LBJ was a man in a sometimes rumpled suit who would roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty, Obama is an empty suit. And it might shock you to hear me say this, but I hate making that assessment.

PDiddie said...

You could not have understood what you read, then. The headline is a facetious question, and the answer is that we wouldn't like him -- another LBJ -- even if we got him.

You're just failing to comprehend irony, like nearly every conservative I have ever met, and vomiting out some very rote Obama Derangement Syndrome bullshit.

The laughable part is that we actually are in basic agreement: that Obama has been weak as president. Among our differences are the fact that you think that's an impeachable offense.

Just another demonstration of talking past one other again. Thanks again for playing; there's some nice parting gifts for you on your way out.

Gadfly said...

Greg's prolly teaching his high school kids that LBJ was a Commie.