Obama inspires comparison to Nixon, LBJ

December 20, 2010


Bill Clinton’s appearance this month at the White House lectern in support of President Barack Obama’s high-noon tax deal set the press buzzards buzzing. The remarks of the Great Triangulator were proof, or so they buzzed, that Barack Obama was triangulating too, as if that were a mortal sin. History shows that triangulation is at worst a venial sin.

The return of the Big Dog, as Clinton sometimes is called, also was seen as evidence that Obama had been forced to the right and diminished since coming into the White House — though presidential drift to the left in domestic policy (see Nixon, Richard) or taxes (see Bush, George H.W.) is often seen in the press as confirmation that a chief executive has grown.

Two factors will exonerate Obama as a courageous visionary or convict him for craven opportunism. One is the economy, over which Obama has discovered he has little control. The other is the verdict of the voters, who demonstrated last month that they would not forever swoon at Obama’s command.

If the economy rebounds and if the voters rush back to Obama’s side — and surely the latter will not happen if the former does not — then he will be regarded as a magus. If it doesn’t and they don’t, he’ll be regarded as a miscreant.

So for the purposes of this morning’s conversation over coffee, let’s leave the judging to others, or maybe to history. Let’s simply pass the cream and recall that presidents like to think they are as stable as Plymouth Rock when in fact they drift like the Mayflower.

To prove this, we need not go back to Thomas Jefferson, who found a way to embrace the Louisiana Purchase even though he didn’t believe in territorial expansion, or to Franklin Roosevelt, who had few fixed principles and was, in Herbert Hoover’s timeless phrase, a chameleon on plaid. We need only examine a handful of presidents in Obama’s own 49-year lifetime.

Start with Lyndon Johnson, who in October 1964 vowed that “we are not about to send American boys nine or 10 thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” He was, of course, the president who escalated the American presence in Vietnam to 536,000 troops.

But he was also the president who, based on his expansive view of American freedoms and his intuitive sense of Americans’ commitment to equality, broke with his own region and his own political mentors (especially his beloved Richard Russell) to side with the black freedom movement and sign two of the landmark civil-rights measures in American history.

“He was known to be friendly toward civil rights, but going full tilt the way he did was unexpected,” Harry C. McPherson Jr., who was special counsel and chief speechwriter to Johnson in the White House, said in a conversation last week. “But history intervened. He had to move forward as vigorously as he did. There was a whole movement out there in the country changing the public’s views. The fire hoses, the dogs, the freedom riders, the burning buses — we now know that he could not have ignored them.”

No president in American history has confounded so many people as Richard M. Nixon, who rose to prominence in the late 1940s as a fractious Cold Warrior and who won a triumphant re-election battle in large measure because of his rapprochement with the twin symbols of communism, the nations then called Soviet Russia and Red China.

But for Nixon, a classic triangulator known as Tricky Dick, his trips to China (soon after the 1972 Iowa caucuses) and the Soviet Union (as anti-war Sen. George S. McGovern of South Dakota was wrapping up the Democratic presidential nomination) were not the only angles he played.

The mature Nixon was an ideological isosceles. He went against his party and every assumption when, in a much-forgotten but hauntingly relevant episode in February 1971, he called for a program of health insurance covering every American, using the private insurance sector but with an employer mandate to provide coverage, a federal subsidy for those unable to pay and shared risk pools.

This was the same conservative who created the Environmental Protection Agency, expanded the food-stamp program and supported open-housing legislation that many conservatives (especially in the Southern states he courted so openly, so assiduously and so cynically) feared and opposed. He also supported wage and price controls in 1971 and ended the convertibility of the dollar to gold, both anathema to conservatives.

“Nixon was willing to go against his own constituencies,” said John R. Price, who in the Nixon White House was special assistant to the president and executive secretary of the Council for Urban Affairs and now is the head of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh. “He had a long view and weighed the politics with his real interest in the substance. But you can only do so much of this. Nixon always tacked back and regathered the reins on his own troops.”

All of which tacks us back to Obama, who was 2 when Johnson took office and 7 when Nixon took office. He is selling his tax compromise, reviled by liberals as Democratic apostasy and scorned by some conservatives as a mealy-mouthed surrender to high deficits, as the work of someone who did what he promised to do in the campaign: to bring “Democrats and Republicans to the table — to put together a compromise and work through our differences,” as he put it in his radio address earlier this month.

Surely it has been Obama’s goal to live up to Alexander Hamilton’s characterization of George Washington as someone who “consulted much, pondered much, resolved slowly, resolved surely.”

But in truth he acts a lot more like Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. The shock for someone who lived through the Johnson and Nixon years is the recognition that years from now what he’s doing might not look half bad — indeed, good enough for government work.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


cato_the_elder 7 years, 3 months ago

This is an excellent discussion that underscores the fact that there was a good reason for Ronald Reagan's seeking to transform the Republican Party after the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, both of whom were classic RINOs. The press despised Nixon so much that it often failed to grasp how far afield his government expansionist views were from those of Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman and others who advocated limited government. In reality, Nixon's views on the role of government were far too often more akin to those of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

This piece also highlights Lyndon Johnson's rank hypocrisy on Vietnam in painting Goldwater as a warmonger during the 1964 election campaign, and then turning right around and almost immediately beginning to escalate the war in order to heat up the economy to pay for geometrically expanded social programs. In reality, Goldwater would have been much less likely to have escalated the war as Johnson did - Goldwater wouldn't have wanted to incur the debt. Turning to the recent past for analogy, it's just one more example of why George W. Bush can never be judged to have been a fiscal conservative.

jafs 7 years, 3 months ago

So, as more of a classical conservative, who do you vote for?

No administration in the last 40 years except for Clinton has had balanced budgets.

cato_the_elder 7 years, 3 months ago

Jafs, the choices are few and far between.

The only reason there was some modicum of fiscal responsibility during part of Clinton's presidency is that he had Republican Congresses. It never would have happened if liberal Democrats had been in control. Unfortunately, many of those same Republicans later forgot who they were after they gained control of the White House, and became as fiscally irresponsible as liberal Democrats always are.

Sean Livingstone 7 years, 3 months ago

cato_the_elder, it's not the Republicans who made Bill Clinton became more fiscally responsible. It's their politics.. the way they want to grab hold of political power. With a Republican president, they went on a spending spree... knowing that the only way to keep their seats.... is a tax cut for everyone. Many refuse to acknowledge that the two biggest deficit items are? Military and medicare. Both suicidal if you cut them.... why? People in both groups are reliable voters. So where do you get the money from? China. And then start blaming them for everything. This is what's going on right now.

cato_the_elder 7 years, 3 months ago

Livingstone, you've got it backwards. Democrats have trucked for years on promising money to everyone under the sun solely to retain power by creating dependent groups of people that rely on government largesse in one form or another and view Democrats as those who will always turn on the government spigot for them. Fortunately, those who live off government still don't outnumber those who produce outside of government and pay the lion's share of the taxes, as was demonstrated by the results of our recent election. Reversing the dangerous trend that has seen the number of those who don't pay any income taxes at all rise close to 50% while being supported by those who do pay income taxes is what that election was all about.

beatrice 7 years, 3 months ago

And cutting taxes during a time of war isn't promising money to everyone?

cato_the_elder 7 years, 3 months ago

No, Beatrice, the modest tax cuts implemented during the Bush administration were done to stimulate the economy, and did so robustly. The Dow reached its all-time high in the fall of 2007, until the financial meltdown, caused directly by the disastrous failure of liberal social engineering schemes implemented by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, and enabled by liberal politicians who had been on the take from them for years, took it down.

Sean Livingstone 7 years, 3 months ago

Cato, there you go trying to link politics to an economic failure. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae are just the tip of the iceberg on the financial meltdown. It's easy to put all the blames on them. I'm sure you only watch one news program to conclude that. If you watch CNBC (which is more conservative in their view point), you will learn all the underlying reasons behind the meltdowns. FMs are just one of the many problems. If we continue linking the environment and economy to politics... we'll fail.

cato_the_elder 7 years, 3 months ago

Livingstone, I watch CNBC every weekday morning for financial news, especially Squawk Box. I've forgotten more than you'll ever know about finance, and I don't form my opinions on political matters from watching talking heads on television.

But for the extreme abuses within Freddie and Fannie, urged on by liberal politicians on the take over a period of years, there never would have been a meltdown. That's a fact. Inconvenient for political liberals, perhaps, but a fact nonetheless.

Sean Livingstone 7 years, 3 months ago

cato... how much is the welfare programs compare to the military expenditures? Once you get to know the differences, you'll realize how much waste is going into the military. You watch the Pentagon Channel? First of all... why does it need to go on everyone's television? Why do we need to maintain large presence overseas? These tiny welfare programs, that I don't normally support, are easy to eliminate. Pass a vote and they'll be gone. Cutting down military expenses and medicare? Not easy.

cato_the_elder 7 years, 3 months ago

Livingstone, I agree that there is a significant amount of waste in military spending, and I support realistically evaluating it in January.

jafs 7 years, 3 months ago

How many Republicans have actually called for cutting military spending?

cato_the_elder 7 years, 3 months ago

I don't know, but hopefully many of them will.

jafs 7 years, 3 months ago

Based on the last several decades, I'd say that's quite unlikely.

cato_the_elder 7 years, 3 months ago

The Tea Party Movement has changed all of that, Jafs. Wait and see.

Sean Livingstone 7 years, 3 months ago

Realistically.... our high-tech weapons cannot match Al-Qaeda's fearless death squads.

Sean Livingstone 7 years, 3 months ago

No matter what, cutting down military expense is inevitable.... there is no way we can reduce a deficit without touching military and medicare. You can eliminate the entire government.... and you'll still be in the deficit... without a cut in military and medicare.

cato_the_elder 7 years, 2 months ago

Agreed that military expenditures must be reduced, along with all entitlement spending.

Flap Doodle 7 years, 3 months ago

The current regime's enemies list puts Nixon's in the shade.

QuinnSutore 7 years, 3 months ago

What I usually call the Anointed One is similar to Tricky Dick and Johnson, but a bit more brief.

ScottyMac 7 years, 3 months ago

Yes. Nutritious food for poverty-stricken children. Audacious.

Now. Tell me where in the world will an inner city child can plant a vegetable garden? Next to her barn?

(The WIC program, by the way, is one of the most cost-effective government programs. A national study done by Mathematica in 1994 showed benefit-to-cost ratios ranging from $1.77 to $3.13 saved for each $1 spent on WIC.)

voevoda 7 years, 3 months ago

TomShewmon, QuinnSutore, "The Anointed One" is the English translation of "Christ." It is a sacred title. When you use it sarcastically as a term of political abuse, you are being sacrilegious. A lot of people may share your negative opinion of President Obama, but they are pious folk who are offended by the way you bandy around the titles of their Lord and Savior in order to make fun of fellow citizens who hold different political views. TomShewmon, In several posting you have bragged about how "God blessed you" with your great wealth (an annual income of over half a million dollars, readers may surmise), and you sarcastically advised "leftists" to try praying (assuming that "leftists" are all atheists--certainly untrue!). If you are truly grateful to God for your wealth, you will stop insulting Him.
Or maybe we should assume that the wealth you received isn't a blessing, but a curse, because it has robbed you of respect for your fellow human beings and of compassion for the needy.

voevoda 7 years, 3 months ago

With a BS in Communication Studies, TomShewmon, you ought to be able to compose a more substantive response. This one sounds like a snotty 13-year-old.

voevoda 7 years, 3 months ago

BornAgainAmerican, It's offensive when strident atheists belittle religious believers on forums, and I have admonished them, too. However, it's even more offensive when individuals who claim to be believers, who even credit their financial success to divine intervention, then turn around and blaspheme. Nonbelievers come in all sorts of political stripes, from Right-wing zealots and ultra-Libertarians to the moderate conservatives and liberals, to the left-wing zealots. A lot of the people you like to misclassify as "socialists" are Christians who are inspired by Jesus' example of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and giving alms to the poor. Jesus didn't tell His followers to get as rich as they could and maybe give a little bit in charity while flaunting their wealth. He didn't oppose the government providing for its people. In Biblical precepts (check the Old Testament) a righteous goverment does provide for the needy!
One doesn't need to be a "socialist" to care about the needs of the less fortunate. If it is only the "socialists" who do, however, what does that say about "born again Americans"?

jonas_opines 7 years, 3 months ago

He also inspires comparisons to Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot, Ghandhi, FDR, etc etc etc.

Doesn't make any of them accurate, though.

Paul R Getto 7 years, 3 months ago

I had my problems with Nixon, but he was the last president we had with a real strategic vision of the world. Opening the door to China is just one example.

voevoda 7 years, 3 months ago

Again, TomShewmon, stop blaspheming. You sound like the unbelievers who ridicule religious people--whether to support right-wing views or left-wing views.

pace 7 years, 3 months ago

tom isn't really taken very seriously , he blasts Obama when he wakes up with a hangover , he blames Obama if Palin makes a geography mistake. . He will blame Obama if it snows on Christmas or if night falls. So to talk to him as if he lived in lucid land wont' serve you well. If you want to have fun, get on, blame Obama for your parking ticket and feel the love..

TopJayhawk 7 years, 3 months ago

Gotta go with veovoda on this one Tom. You even capitalize the letters. That is blasphemie. Please stop. Call him the Obaminator, the Obamanation, or something else.
Veovoda is right.

Paul R Getto 7 years, 3 months ago

BAA: "Skygods," I beg your pardon. Skygods is not a disparaging remark, but a description of those unseen, omnipotent forces humans have worshiped for centuries after they gave up on the vegetation gods. For a good read, see E.O. James, The Ancient Gods. It's quite fascinating, actually. The three modern skygods who now control much of the politics came from the Iranian tradition. Some may denigrate the skygods, but I don't. I just choose to reject them as obsolete. Here are a few of the obsolete skygods, just to name a few: Buku: Worshipped as a sky god and creator, although sometimes worshiped as a goddess, in some West African cultures. Ebore: An African sky god Emayian: A sky god of the Masai of Kenya, a sky god. En-Kai: A Masai sky god. Kazooba: Sky god, creator, and sun god of the Ankore of Uganda Mukameiguru: A sky god of the Ankore. Nenaunir: Resided in the clouds and was a dreaded spirit to the Masai. Nyamia Ama: A sky god in Senegal. Since we all Africans in the beginning, I thought I'd concentrate on those from our mother continent.

jafs 7 years, 3 months ago

"It is not ... place to be judgemental if ... is truly Christian".

That's a fascinating idea, since many Christians, including you, seem to hold quite judgmental views - in fact, a major element of Christian belief seems to be judging people.

Believing that homosexuals are sinners who are going to hell would just be one glaringly obvious example.

jafs 7 years, 3 months ago

Well said.

Perhaps you are less personally judgmental than many Christians.

TopJayhawk 7 years, 3 months ago

It is not a judgement. The Bible is clear on this. If you don't like it, start your own religeon. The Book says what it says.

jafs 7 years, 3 months ago


The Bible says many things, many of which contradict one another.

Believers, in order to create a coherent belief system, select and interpret parts of the Bible, and ignore others.

Do you follow all of the dietary laws in Leviticus? If not, why not?

voevoda 7 years, 3 months ago

On the contrary, BornAgainAmerican, I think that TomShewmon (and you) can be Christian and still be stingy and lacking and compassion. Just not good Christians who follow Jesus' example.
What I don't understand is this, BornAgainAmerican: Why do you think that good Christians (in your definition) shouldn't want their government to behave in a Christian manner: feeding the hungry, housing the indigent, healing their illnesses, collecting "loaves and fishes" and redistributing them?

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 3 months ago

Deafening silence from BAA et al.

It would be helpful for christian conservatives to re-read the New Testament and actually think about what their Lord preached.

The meek shall inherit the earth. Feed the hungry, clothe and house the poor, tend to the sick, care for the least among us.

I don't remember any asterisks or exception clauses when Jesus spoke about these things.

Seems most christian conservatives I have interacted with are miles away from even considering these precepts as valid let alone trying to live by them.

gudpoynt 7 years, 3 months ago

BAA: How much do you think I should give?

Jesus: All of it.

Then again, Jesus was a liberal democrat... http://bit.ly/iaD8QS

voevoda 7 years, 3 months ago

I agree, BornAgainAmerican, that the US can't fund every worthwhile project, much less the projects that aren't worthwhile, too. It's a matter of priorities. Helping the poor at home, making sure that all our citizens have food, housing, medical care, and education in keeping with their abilities, ought to be the highest priorities, in my view. I gather that you may agree. The question then becomes how best to achieve that goal. Not wasting money on useless things, such as wars create more enemies and more danger, is number 1 for me. Maybe for you, too. That's what caused the collapse of the Soviet Union: the government expended the country's wealth on military expenditures and ignored the needs of the people. The population brought the government down because it failed to provide them with the social safety net it promised--not because they didn't want a government that would do those things. I think that we disagree about whether people who are very wealthy should pay more taxes so that the poor--the workers who can't earn a living wage no matter how many hours they labor, the involuntarily unemployed, the sick, children--have their basic needs met. The government needs to see that this happens because private charities haven't been able to handle the level of need since, well, the Middle Ages. Leaving more money in the hands of the rich doesn't mean that they create more jobs and give generously to charities voluntarily. It means that their companies move jobs overseas, and they spend their money on vast quantities of imported luxuries while the poor in their own communities go without.
When individuals have dire needs, they borrow the money to meet them. So, too, with our government. If the current situation doesn't qualify as "dire need," I don't know what would (short of invasion). If we take care of our own people, help them to be healthy and educated, make sure that they can earn a living in a 40-hour work week, prosperity will return. Then, we can again address the budgetary deficits, as the Clinton administration did in the 1990s.

IndusRiver 7 years, 3 months ago

Once upon a time in America (not the movie) Milkin' Milton Friedman thought he had Nixon in his pocket but ol' j-wad Nixon went belly up Pro-Socialist on him and that is how the Shock Doctrine got cancelled back in the day.

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 3 months ago

I suppose there are similarities between Obama and these two former presidents.

Obama saved the economy and the stock market by continuing Bush's bailouts and with the stimulus.

He passed major health care reform that until recently was the plan of the GOP for health care reform.

He managed to negotiate a "second stimulus" with the GOP, extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and extending unemployment benefits and other middle class tax credits.

He remarkably oversaw the passage of the most significant civil rights legislation of the past 20 years, the repeal of Don't Ask-Don't Tell.

These are Obama's successes after two years.

I need to stop doubting him, which I did about the Bush tax cuts and DADT. He has delivered for the American people and the economy, seemingly pulling victory from the jaws of defeat.

If Obama doesn't have another major accomplishment as president, he will still go down in history as among the best presidents of the modern age.

Liberty275 7 years, 3 months ago

"Obama saved the economy"

Source: CNN

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The use of food stamps has increased dramatically in the U.S., as the federal government ramps up basic assistance to meet the demands of an increasingly desperate population.

The number of food stamp recipients increased 16% over last year. This means that 14% of the population is now living on food stamps. That's about 43 million people, or about one out of every seven Americans.

Corey Williams 7 years, 3 months ago

So you're just with the crackpots then?

As if it wasn't painfully obvious

Sean Livingstone 7 years, 2 months ago

Tom, a pot calling a kettle black? You can label me as a liberal lunatic, yet I never once said that I'm one. You scolded me in one of my last postings.... but when someone called you a "Christian Conservative"... and get scolded by someone far left.... you should really stop and think.

TopJayhawk 7 years, 3 months ago

Ninty-nine weeks of unemplyment? That's just lazy right there no matter how you slice it. Get off the Obama welfare cart and get a job.

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