Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Obama and LBJ

It's become chic lately to compare Obama's legislative record unfavorably with LBJ's. The New York Times ran a front page article today that made a typical case, complete with colorful anecdotes about Johnson engaging in some old fashioned bullying and the standard hand wringing that Obama doesn't "twist" enough arms. There were a lot of responses the folly of this argument, Greg Sargent had a good general take down and Jonathan Bernstein had another one focusing on reasons political science tells us this is wrong at The Washington Post. I won't go into the basics of why this argument is wrong, I've written about it before if you are interested, but I really did like Bernstein's last point:
6. And this one is overlooked: Johnson’s bullying style was successful … for a while. By the end of his presidency, it wasn’t working any more. Getting a reputation as an effective negotiator has a lot of advantages, but getting a reputation as a bully who can’t be trusted creates a lot of problems — even if bullying can be effective in the short run.
This is a great point and something I don't think get's stressed enough about LBJ in particular or the Presidency in general.

In fact Johnson himself saw that his arm twisting would cause problems in the long run. In Michael Beschloss' book "Reaching For Glory" about the Johnson Presidency in 1964 and 1965 Beschloss points out that Johnson accurately predicted that he would only enjoy a brief period of success steam rolling Congress:
After the victory of 1964 the old master had warned his staff that despite the huge Democratic margin on Capitol Hill, they would have only six months or so before exhausted, resentful members of the House and Senate began to rebel against the lash of the White House. After enacting the most important legislative program since FDR's First New Deal, LBJ suffered his initial major repudiation- on home rule for the District of Columbia-in September 1965. "It only takes one for them to see they can cut us and make us bleed," he told his aides. "Then they'll bleed us to death on our other legislation." About Congress he was rarely wrong. The bleeding had begun...
By 1966, as Jonson had predicted, the backlash against the Great Society, civil rights, and a stalemate in Vietnam was in full snap. In the midterm elections Republicans gained forty-seven seats in the House, three seats in the Senate, and eight new Governors, including Ronald Reagan in California. Richard Nixon chortled to friends, "We've beaten hell out of them, and we're going to kill them in '68."
Mighty Johnson had struck out, and of all things on a DC home rule bill.

The point isn't that Presidents aren't powerless or irrelevant, whose in The White House matters a lot! The point is that Presidents are not elected Kings, the are office holders in a vast and complicated democratic system with limited power. If you want to pass a gun control bill you either need to change the position of the Republican Party or change who controls the House of Representatives. This is hard work with no guarantee of success, but if we spent more time trying to do these things and less time complaining about Obama, we might do better.

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