Yesterday’s New York Times featured an interesting piece comparing President Obama to Lyndon Johnson (“Could Afghanistan Become Obama’s Vietnam?”). The article speculated that Obama’s ambitious domestic programs could end up being derailed by an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, just as LBJ’s Great Society was by the Vietnam War. According to the article, President Obama himself has compared his situation to LBJ’s.
I doubt Afghanistan will ever become as big a pain in the ass for Obama as Vietnam was for LBJ, but the article made me think. I just read an excellent presidential biography of Lyndon Johnson by Doris Kearns Goodwin that led me to reconsider the former president. Despite his horrible handling of Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson was a brilliant, good-hearted man whom Obama could take a few lessons from.
Everyone’s talking about how Obama’s poll numbers are slipping as a result of the current Healthcare debate. What’s really hurting him, however, isn’t the debate itself but his mismanagement of it. President Obama has lost control over the national dialogue over healthcare reforms, despite calling numerous town halls and press conferences to dispel rumors and clarify his goals. He seems to have even less control over Congress, as Republicans, Blue Dog Democrats, and left-wing Democrats seek out their own policy goals, showing little willingness to compromise.
President Obama should consult the playbook of LBJ, perhaps the most skillful manipulator of Congress in American history. In her biography of LBJ, Goodwin notes that, contrary to popular belief, his handling of Congress consisted of more than strong-arming. LBJ had a genius for reading people, discovering in the course of a conversation their fears and desires, and responding to them. To reward members of Congress for “good behavior” he promised them positions of importance, mustered up the support they felt they needed to vote a certain way (from newspaper editors, organizations, other members of Congress, etc.), or allowed them access to his personal popularity as president (which was, like Obama’s, originally quite considerable). To punish them, LBJ would withdraw his affection to make them feel isolated from his circle of power. Of course, strong-arming could be a component of LBJ’s “treatment”, but only when it was the most effective way, which LBJ somehow knew instinctively.
Instead of giving control of healthcare reform to Congress, I wish Obama would put himself in a position like LBJ. While LBJ’s legislation responded to the needs of Congress, it was always under his ultimate control. Like LBJ, Obama should also set clear objectives for his domestic programs, instead of adding or removing vital parts of legislation when passage appears uncertain, such as in the case of the public policy option in the current healthcare bill. Most of all, Obama should use his personal popularity to manipulate congressmen, while it still lasts.
Also like LBJ, President Obama should never forget the human element of his programs. While in action on the floor of Congress, LBJ might have seemed like a political machine, but behind all his machinations was a desire to spread the American dream to as many as possible. I’m sure Obama has the same desire, but he hasn’t been talking much about it lately. Obama needs to remind the American people that healthcare reform isn’t about politics or socialism or health insurance companies – it’s about spreading happiness, health and opportunity to as many Americans as possible.