Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Where Does Obama Go From Here?

The meme du jour seems to view Barack Hussein Obama as the rightful heir of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as the progenitor of the New New Deal. Franklin Delano Obama is the subject of a Paul Krugman piece that argues for bold economic strokes and audacity. But he is an economist. We would expect no less. Michael Lind writing in Salon is also stuck within the window of his own specialization. Viewing the nation through a lens of broad changes based largely on centralization and decentralizaation, he tells us, in a stunning display of egomanaical fancy, that we hae entered the era of the Fourth Republic.

More often these comparisons seem based on the nature of the presidency that came before the two men then wander into a comparison that, in my view, is based largely on a lack of imagination. Here is George Packer for The New Yorker.

Barack Obama’s decisive defeat of John McCain is the most important victory of a Democratic candidate since 1932. It brings to a close another conservative era, one that rose amid the ashes of the New Deal coalition in the late sixties, consolidated its power with the election of Ronald Reagan, in 1980, and immolated itself during the Presidency of George W. Bush. Obama will enter the White House at a moment of economic crisis worse than anything the nation has seen since the Great Depression; the old assumptions of free-market fundamentalism have, like a charlatan’s incantations, failed to work, and the need for some “new machinery” is painfully obvious.

In spite of the fact that the right from the time of Barry Goldwater on has been doggedly struggling to obliterate all of the social changes created during the new deal I don't see the Roosevelt/Obama comparison as a good fit. Nor do I see the occasional comparison between Reagan and Obama apt, in spite of Obama's obvious admiration for the accomplishments of Reagan.

Listening to the radio the week of the election -- that was just last week, wasn't it? -- I heard someone say that for him the morning after the election was November 23, 1963. The promise that seemed to die with the assasination of John Kennedy seemed alive for him again. That felt exactly right to me.

Which brings me to the appropriate comparison for the Obama presidency -- Lyndon Baines Johnson, an effective yet tragically flawed presidency. If Obama can do the kinds of things that Johnson did, can be legislatively bold while avoiding getting bogged down in a war in Afghanistan or Pakistan or wherever a war seems to beckon him, he could become a great president ushering in an equally great era.

This is a blog entry, not a book chapter, so I'm not going to wade through all of Johnson's accomplishments. Robert Dallek synopsizes some of his major accomplishments

Johnson seized upon the national mood of regard for the fallen president to win passage of his major unrealized legislative initiatives - an $11 billion tax cut, the 1964 civil rights bill, and subsequently, in 1965, the Medicare/Medicaid and federal aid to education laws.

Johnson was not content to simply embrace JFK's proposals. He successfully took up the cudgels for the voting rights, open housing, immigration reform, environmental protections, consumer safety bills, cabinet departments of transportation and housing and urban development, cultural reforms like the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and the Freedom of Information Act. The War on Poverty also became part of his presidential legacy. Head Start, food stamps, elimination of urban slums, public housing, expanded social security, legal services and expanded welfare to needy citizens added up to an assault on poverty that reduced the percentage of Americans living in penury from roughly 23 percent to 12 percent. Although a number of Johnson's initiatives fell short of what he hoped they might accomplish, his domestic reforms added up to a record of liberal alterations that rivaled FDR's New Deal.
Moreover, Johnson's civil rights actions permanently transformed the South.

I don't know what they teach in schools these days about Johnson but his fatal flaw was his belief in the war in Vietnam. Dallek again
Convinced it was in the country's national interest to combat Communist aggression in Vietnam, believing that a failure to fight a limited war would lead to a larger one with Russia and China, and fearful that losing Vietnam would touch off a right-wing, McCarthyite reaction in the United States, Johnson sent over 500,000 U.S. troops to fight the war.

His assumption that a combination of bombing, ground forces and aid to the Saigon government would assure the independence of South Vietnam proved to be false. Despite repeated assertions that American was winning in Vietnam, Johnson could not convince Americans we were achieving our goals, especially after Tet, the North Vietnamese-Viet Cong offensive early in 1968 that seemed to give the lie to Johnson's assertions about the fighting.
We still bear the cultural scars from these decisions. And from Bush (and McCain's) equally flawed efforts to create an American empire, in spite of those failures. Obama started out with the right impulses, speaking out against an invasion of Iraq. Yet during the campaign he began to speak of a "surge" in Afghanistan. There have been leaks about closing Guantanamo but it is too soon to see whether he has a less militaristic model to take its place. We hear rumors of Mr. Gates staying on as the Secretary of Defense while we hear pleas to cut the defense budget.

President-elect Obama is a smart guy. He is well known for being cool, no drama Obama. If he can keep his head about him, if he can learn from history and hold onto his core, he can become a great president ushering in a great era in United States history. I wish him the best.