Opinion: LBJ may be good model for Obama

November 9, 2012


— There’s a telling moment at the beginning of Robert A. Caro’s new book when Lyndon Johnson’s advisers are gathered four days after he has become president to draft his first speech to Congress. Capitol Hill is divided, the country is grieving from the assassination of his predecessor, and some of LBJ’s advisers are urging him to take it slow. “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?” Johnson replies.

Barack Obama will be getting advice by the boatload over the next few weeks but the best guidance may be what emerges from Caro’s biography, “The Passage of Power”:  Think big. Find strategies and pressure points that can break the gridlock in Congress, which was as rigid in 1963 as it is today. Surprise your adversaries with bold moves and concessions that create new space on which to govern.

Watching Tuesday’s triumph, it seemed obvious that Obama needs the policy equivalent of David Plouffe, his senior campaign adviser. Plouffe’s genius was to decide early on that the race depended on nine battleground states; if he could deliver those states by a relentless and sometimes ruthless assault, he would win the larger victory. He was like a general who concentrates his forces at the points of greatest vulnerability and then prevails through sheer force of will.

Obama’s performance as president has often lacked this decisive, strategic quality. The notes are there, but not the policy “music.” In both foreign and domestic policy, the impression of Obama, after his blunderbuss, first-year battles on health care and the Israeli-Palestinian issue, has been of a careful president who reacts to events, waits for others to make the first moves, and plays to avoid losing rather than to win.

Well, Mr. President, what the hell’s the presidency for?

A strategic second term would begin by identifying a list of necessary and achievable goals, and then pursuing them with the unyielding manipulative skill of a Lyndon Johnson. On the top of everybody’s list would be a budget deal. Everybody knows, more or less, what it will require: changes in Social Security and Medicare that slow the growth of entitlement spending; reform of the tax code that produces a fairer and simpler system that raises revenues without limiting growth.

A road map is there in the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan, and Obama administration officials have been thinking privately for months about how to tweak the plan so it’s better and fairer. Mitt Romney’s generous concession speech Tuesday night opened a possible door, and the president should follow up his statement that he will “look forward to sitting down with Governor Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward.” The president and his new Treasury secretary (Jack Lew?) should take the next step and ask Romney to help close the budget deal the country needs.

In foreign policy, Obama will need to be equally strategic. What does he want to accomplish? My list: A deal with Iran that verifiably limits its nuclear program and avoids war; a deal in Afghanistan that averts civil war when U.S. forces leave in 2014; a deal for a political transition in Syria (a shorthand Syria summary would be to organize the opposition so that it’s strong enough to bargain, then help win a Nobel Peace Prize for Vladimir Putin). And, finally, a deal to create a Palestinian state so that Israel has secure borders and the Arab world can get on with the process of becoming modern and democratic.

All these primary foreign policy goals are “deals,” and it follows that the president needs a dealmaker as secretary of state. Who could do that, after Hillary Clinton leaves, probably at the end of January? John Kerry is an experienced man who thinks outside the box and is willing to take risks. Even if the president is said to have found him somewhat windy as the stand-in for Romney during debate preparation, Kerry has shown over the past four years a willingness to negotiate with adversaries, in secret, and achieve results.

A longtime Democratic adviser argues that Obama needs the “Bolten Plan,” as in Josh Bolten, the White House chief of staff who mobilized the machinery of government to get it moving in the same direction in George W. Bush’s second term. This will never be a happy model for Democrats, but it captures an important point: A successful second term is less about ideology than about results.

Think big. Take risks. Get it done. Maybe someone should slip a note in Obama’s desk drawer that asks: What would Lyndon Johnson have done to make it happen?

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Paul R Getto 5 years, 7 months ago

Good points here. There are openings on immigration and budget issues if the D's talk to the R's and the Tea Party folks in the house behave. Let is get some real work done, for OUR country. Time is running out.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 7 months ago

LBJ's long tenure in Congress, highlighted by his rise to positions of leadership, is very suggestive of a person knowledgeable of how to get a deal done. Obama's short tenure in the same institution does not inspire me to believe he has the negotiating savvy of LBJ.

That said, the Senate has a long tradition of approving one of their own. John Kerry's rumored move to Secretary of State would be approved very quickly. Perhaps Obama might ask Kerry, or some other such long tenured member of Congress to lead negotiations with Congress to break the deadlock that exists. Perhaps even a moderate Republican. The name Olympia Snowe comes to mind.

beatrice 5 years, 7 months ago

LBJ served at a time when people knew how to compromise. I'm not sure either side really gets it any more. Now it is all special interest groups and party-line voting.

With healthcare done for now (still needs tweaks and fixes, however), the only major issue is the debt. I hope Democrats and Republicans will work together to fix the problem.

John Hamm 5 years, 7 months ago

After Four years you expect BO to change his gameplan or agenda? To work with Congress, to give and take. Ain't gonna happen folks. When are you gonna wake up? Boehner tried to work with him and BO changed the game at the last minute = that's his style, "It's going to be MY way or I'll just issue an Executive Order."

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 7 months ago

You don't want him to "work with Congress." You want him to capitulate to every Republican demand (the current definition of "compromise" in Republicanspeak.)

progressive_thinker 5 years, 7 months ago

The current congress has been the least productive since 1947. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/USCP/PNI/Front%20Page/2012-08-16-LAZYCONGRESS_ST_U.htm

In response to the recent presidential election, Speaker Boehner has announced that the republicans intend to continue to engage in economic stonewalling and even blackmail to achieve a goal that they cannot reach through the legislative process, even in the face of the fact that a populist majority has voted for the position taken by our president.

Economic blackmail has got to end. The president needs to lead, that is true. He needs to lead by being a tough, no holds barred negotiator to achieve the goals that he campaigned on. If that means that the republicans elect to inflict great and unnecessary damage to the economy, those actions will be regrettable. The voters may remember what the tea publicans do at the polls in a couple of years.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 7 months ago

Obama has a choice. He can continue the generally centrist approach he took in his first term, seeking again whatever marginal gains and improvements can be had in spite of an uncompromising and obstructionist Republican Party. Or he can take some bold stances and see if there is enough political support to make those happen, and that may include putting Republican feet to the fire in the 2014 elections, perhaps getting a majority in the House for his final two years.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 7 months ago

The main thing Republicans have going for them is their ability to gerrymander congressional districts. But not even that will help them as they become an ever more freakishly radical and marginal party, lacking the critical mass to carry even gerrymandered districts.

Democratic House Candidates Received More Votes Than Republicans


"While Republicans hung onto control of the House of Representatives after Tuesday's election, Democratic candidates across the U.S. received more total votes than Republican candidates did.

While not all ballots have been counted, Democrats hold an edge over Republicans in overall votes. According to ThinkProgress, 53,952,240 votes were cast for Democratic candidates, while Republican candidates received 53,402,643. However, thanks in part to redistricting, Republicans will hold more than half the seats in the House while receiving less than half of overall votes.

In Pennsylvania, for example, President Barack Obama received 52 percent of the vote, compared with Mitt Romney's 46.8 percent total. However, Democrats won only five of the state's 18 seats in the House of Representatives. As Slate's Dave Weigel points out, the state's congressional districts have been gerrymandered to keep suburban and rural areas red. Ohio shows a similar trend, with just four of the state's 16 seats going blue.

After Tuesday's election, the House total for next term stands at 234 Republicans to 195 Democrats, with six races still uncalled. Democrats currently lead in five of those six races. If those five win, Democrats will have picked up a net gain of seven House seats."

jhawkinsf 5 years, 7 months ago

Assuming your numbers are correct for the total votes cast for Democrats and Republicans in the various House races, the difference represents less that one half of one percent. Can you think of a more apt description of a house divided? In fact, if I were looking for an argument in favor of gridlock, that would be it.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 7 months ago

Sure, it's gridlock. But I don't see how it's a good thing-- there are very serious, deadly serious, issues that need to be dealt with that won't even get debated, dealing with global warming at the very top of the list. That's a real debt that will be passed on to future generations, unlike the largely abstract problem of the deficit that will almost surely drive the gridlock of the upcoming session.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 7 months ago

I'm not advocating gridlock. But I do believe that the three branches of government are all equal to each other. I can see how the argument that the leaders of the House or Senate might make that their mandate is equal to that of the President's. But if your argument is that in the House democrats received 50.2% of the vote and Republicans received 49.8% of the vote, thereby securing something of a mandate, well, I'm not so sure of that. I've never been supportive of Republicans' obstructionist attitudes. But I've been equally disappointed in the President's failure of leadership. Not much has changed in Washington as a result of this election. It's divided much along the same lines it was prior to the election. What will need to change and what I hope will change is people's attitude towards compromise.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 7 months ago

"But if your argument is that in the House democrats received 50.2% of the vote and Republicans received 49.8% of the vote, thereby securing something of a mandate,"

It wasn't my point. See post above if you want to know what my point was.

"But I've been equally disappointed in the President's failure of leadership. "

If you want a centrist course, achieved in the face of a completely and intentionally obstructionist and uncompromising opposition party, his leadership in first four years has actually been quite remarkable.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 7 months ago

The evidence of his leadership having been quite remarkable being ... ?

jhawkinsf 5 years, 7 months ago

Please don't insult me. I thank you in advance for that.

Gerrymandering is something that is done in our system. By both Democrats and Republicans. If your point is that Democrats don't do it, you're wrong. If your point is that Republicans do it better, then that may or may not be a valid point. Certainly you wouldn't suggest that Republicans dim their bulb and do it less well. Perhaps the Democrats need to do a better job.

BTW - With 30 governors being Republican, perhaps it's true that Republicans fare better on the state level, which might explain why they do better at Gerrymandering as well as electing Republicans to the House.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 7 months ago

Compared to the "modern" R's there is some truth to what you say.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 7 months ago

"Nixon was a liberal" - That made me think. If a very middle of the road moderate were dropped in Lawrence, that person might be considered a conservative. If that same person is dropped into some Western Kansas community, that person would be considered a liberal. This would be true even if the person's views didn't change at all.

So is Nixon a liberal because we're viewing him with 40 years of perspective? Or is it because the meaning of liberal and/or conservative has changed? Are you injecting some of you own bias?

I think a more fair assessment would be that given the times he lived in and the political realities he was dealing with in his time, Nixon would have been a right/center President.

labmonkey 5 years, 7 months ago

This writer keeps saying that Obama should nominate John Kerry to SOS. It will not happen due to a pretty good chance Scott Brown will make it back into the Senate negating one of the Dem's net gains.

Although we will go into a recession, would the fiscal cliff actually be a bad thing in the long run? It makes much needed cuts to spending which is what the Republicans really want, and it ends the Bush tax cuts which temporarily increases revenue which is what the Dems want. The current whole argument/line in the sand over tax increases is the wrong argument. It should be "where are we cutting spending first?" Like Rand Paul said at the RNC, both sides need to be willing to slay some sacred cows.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 7 months ago

If Kerry were to leave the Senate for any reason, the Democratic Gov. of Mass. would then select his successor, maintaining whatever balance existed before.

labmonkey 5 years, 7 months ago

That would be temporary... the state of Mass. has to hold a special election 145 to 160 days after Kerry leaves office. Do you think the Dem. Mass. Gov. appointed Brown, a Republican, to replace Ted Kennedy?

jhawkinsf 5 years, 7 months ago

Brown's election was very much an anomaly in Mass., one that was rectified this past Tuesday when Elizabeth Warren defeated him.

Maybe Hillary could rent a studio apartment in Boston and get the appointment herself.

jafs 5 years, 7 months ago

Actually, I think that's a great idea.

Let's give Obama and the D full control, and let them implement their policies for at least 4 years - then we can evaluate them and their effects.

jafs 5 years, 7 months ago

The "cliff" does things that neither side wants, which is why they set it up, to goad themselves into coming up with something better.

Massive cuts in the military upset R, and similar cuts to Medicare, etc. upset D.

Ending the tax cuts for everybody upsets both sides - R want to continue them entirely, and D want to end them for those who are more well off, but keep them for the rest of us.

classclown 5 years, 7 months ago

LBJ decided not to run for another term so if Obama is trying to model himself after him, he blew it.

kenyaqueen 5 years, 7 months ago

Stop badmouthing Barack. He saved the country from depression and the auto industry and banks and lots more. This term Barack is gonna even the field with the rich folks so we all have money.

Abdu Omar 5 years, 7 months ago

Show me proof of that LO. What I have seen as I travel is that housing prices are rising and the number of auto sales have increased. I believe that it is your opinion that things are worse because you look at them in a different way. Unemployment is down, the number of employment ads in the newspaper, even this one, has increased meaning there are jobs to be had. Go get one!

classclown 5 years, 7 months ago

All I did was make an observation children. Did LBJ refuse to seek or accept the nomination for another term or did he not?

Did Obama seek another term or did he not.

How do the two men compare in that regard?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 7 months ago

LBJ served for a little over 5 years, so he did seek (and win) re-election the first time he was eligible.

But even though you could be considered correct on the basis that in the 1960 election he was elected VP and not P, fretser's right-- it was a largely pointless remark.

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