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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Not All Presidential Templates Are Transferable

There are always good reasons to be skeptical about articles arguing that current presidents should emulate the examples of previous presidents. Such articles have no doubt been appearing since the first Adams administration. Often, there is some merit in the argument, but the adequacy of the suggested template for addressing current struggles is almost always exaggerated.
A good example of the phenomenon is Joseph Califano, Jr.’s WaPo op-ed “What Obama Can Learn from LBJ,” in which LBJ’s chief assistant for domestic affairs(1965-69) and President Carter’s HEW Secretary (1977-79) makes the case:

…As political and private-sector leaders nationwide realize that an engaged president is key to progress, many wish that Barack Obama was more like Lyndon B. Johnson. The refrain of many Democrats — and some Republicans — is that at least with LBJ, Washington worked and we got something done….Obama will never be like Johnson, but LBJ’s presidency offers lessons that could help him win a second term…

Califano reviews the impressive legislative accomplishments of LBJ’s Administration, which were truly extraordinary, a litany which includes landmark civil rights bills, Medicare, Medicaid, anti-poverty initiatives and other historic reforms. Arguably, no other president achieved so much without being elected to a second term.
But Califano complains that “LBJ spent enough time in the House and Senate and working with presidents to understand that Washington functions best with strong and involved presidential leadership. Obama does not seem to get that.” What Califano doesn’t seem to get here is that Obama simply didn’t have the time to forge the productive relationships that LBJ developed over many years. It’s crazy to suggest that he has the same leverage as did LBJ, who certainly earned the sobriquet “Master of the Senate” long before he assumed the Presidency.
I think there is an even bigger blind spot in Califano’s argument — his assumption, against all evidence, that today’s Republicans are as amenable to compromise as were the GOP leaders of Johnson’s time. Califano points out that Republicans could be pretty hard-assed back then. But there are no Dirksens or Javitzes or Margaret Chase Smiths around today. Gypsy Moths and even reasonable Republican leaders in congress have been hounded into near-extinction. The few that are left are still cringing in dark corners, until the tea party finds its rightful place on the dung heap of history. Only then will we again see Republicans who are willing to negotiate in good faith. Only then will real bipartisanship become possible again.
Moreover, President Obama has bent over backwards to compromise with Republicans to no avail whatsoever. I agree with those who argue that he has already given away too much of the store. But I’m glad that he now seems ready to do battle.
Despite Califano’s blind spot, I think he has a good point that President Obama could channel a little of LBJ’s hard-ball negotiation style, as well as FDR’s fighting spirit. But every president has had their strengths and weaknesses, LBJ included (Vietnam, ‘domino theory’). The challenge is to emulate the strengths when possible, but not buy into the whole template.

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