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.


classclown 1 year, 5 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?


classclown 1 year, 5 months ago

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


labmonkey 1 year, 5 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.


Saoul 1 year, 5 months ago

LBJ was a good role model for Nixon. So why not Obama?

Thanks to LBJ taking over the administration of assets in Vietnam away from Generals, Nixon was able to cease the Nam cluster.

And Nixon fathered,

  • Saved America’s environment by creating the Environmental Protection Agency and Clean Air Act while approving the most sweeping environmental legislation in history.
  • Simultaneously reformed welfare and brought in serious new civil-rights laws and agencies for minorities, women, the handicapped and children.
  • Proclaimed the first official U.S. Earth Day/Earth Week in 1971.
  • Totally reformed the government’s relationship with Native Americans, bringing new self-determination and civil rights to U.S. tribes while saving such Indian natural wonders as Pyramid Lake — the tribe even renamed its capital “Nixon.”
  • Was even described as “the Abraham Lincoln of the Indian people.”
  • Loved those Chinese communists.
  • Spent more on social programs than defense!

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 1 year, 5 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."


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 1 year, 5 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.


Milton Bland 1 year, 5 months ago

Don't under estimate the role Bill Clinton will play. His support For Obama was not provided witthout expecting something in return. Clinton desperately wants to get back into the White House, as the country's first "first husband". Just ask Vince Foster's friends and family. The Clintons will stop at nothing. Obama may have his darkest days yet to come.


OonlyBonly 1 year, 5 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."


beatrice 1 year, 5 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.


jhawkinsf 1 year, 5 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.


Paul R Getto 1 year, 5 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.


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