Will the failings of “The Great Society” also be the undoing of “A More Perfect Nation”?

Barack Obama has been compared to a number of former presidents and politicians — both Jack and Bobby Kennedy were brought up during the 2008 election, a few tentative parallels have been made between Obama and Republican hero Ronald Reagan, less than flattering predictions of Obama’s presidency have been drawn from Carter’s years in office, and even Richard Nixon has entered the discussion as both he and Obama made strong calls to the American people about the importance of healthcare reform. Now yet another name has been thrown into the hat: Lyndon Johnson.

Like Obama, LBJ started his first elected term at a sprint. As The Week‘s Robert Shrum noted at the end of last month, “Lyndon Johnson achieved a formidable legislative record as president, but was undone by two key failures. Obama faces the same two challenges — fortunately, he still has time to correct course.” Shrum’s article does a fine job summing up Obama’s current standing with the American people, as does Mark McKinnon’s companion piece published by The Daily Beast last Friday.

Essentially, Shrum voices the opinion that despite Obama’s impressive legislative record, the president’s relationship with the American people has started to wane. This was also an issue for LBJ. Shrum writes, “Johnson’s call to ‘the Great Society,’ fashioned by Kennedy speechwriter Richard Goodwin, was brilliant. But over time it was reduced to an amorphous tagline, as the central arguments Johnson set out in that speech dropped from his discourse and from the national consciousness.” In Obama’s case, the charismatic speaker who delivered the “A More Perfect Union” speech, among others, has fallen from view. If a powerful legislative record is not enough — and the imagery of “wall of a thousand laws” at the Johnson Library is a powerful testament to this — Obama may face an unexpectedly uphill battle come 2012, especially if the Republicans can find a candidate that resonates with the American public in a way Obama has not in recent days.

Shrum’s second challenge is one that has been lingering for years — the two wars that Obama inherited the day he took office, conflicts where victory has still not been strongly defined and exit strategies continue to elude our political and military leaders. Shrum aptly notes that with Vietnam, LBJ risked becoming “the first American president to lose a war.” For Obama, Afghanistan is starting to look an awful lot like that doomed conflict. The president has called for a review of the war effort in December, but what he will do if Afghanistan continues to look like a war that cannot be won, not in the conventional definition of the word, is unclear.

I agree with Shrum’s conclusion: “Barack Obama must do what Johnson could not: He must reach and win the hearts and minds of the American people; and he must decide soon, with political courage, what he will do about the nation’s longest war (ironically, what Vietnam also was in its time).”

This is a country that elected a president that people wanted to have a beer with. Many felt they could connect with the younger President Bush, enough so that W. not only defeated the Maverick and the future Nobel Prize Winner in 2000, but later Senator Kerry in 2004. To be honest, that’s not a bad record. And it should be a warning to Obama: If you can’t find a way to connect with the American people, someone else will.

With the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Obama must find a way to get the American people on board with whatever steps he plans to take after Decemeber. The idea of convincing the nation that an indefinitely continued military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan would be the best course of action is absurd, and this may play well for Obama in the short term if he decides that a dramatic cut in the number of troops in these countries is the best course of action. It will be the fallout in the wake of departing American troops that will haunt the president in 2012. If things go terribly wrong after a military withdrawal, fulfilling his promise to get the troops home may not be enough, and those dark moments will be swiftly seized upon by the Republicans and used not only as justification for their behavior during the Obama administration, but as fuel for their political future.

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14 Responses to “Will the failings of “The Great Society” also be the undoing of “A More Perfect Nation”?”
  1. Adam says:

    The thing that I think is off about this kind of argument (Shrum et al) is that people keep framing the disconnect as a rhetorical one (hearts and minds), without understanding the ways in which that’s secondary to or predicated on material conditions (stomachs). We talk about declining approval/trust numbers as a failure of Obama’s communications shop, as a miscalculation about how much or in what contexts to put him on air, as a messaging misstep. But political scientists would be happy to point out that no amount or caliber of messaging is enough to overcome 9.5% unemployment. We’re too inclined to read Obama’s political fortunes as if everyone in the country belonged to the DC journalist tribe, took umbrage at the same things as DC journalists, gave a damn about the same things DC journalists do. Sure, messaging matters, but I don’t think we’re losing control of the narrative because of a rhetorical failure so much as because the material conditions that matter to most people–and on which the rhetorical success and failure of the administration depends–are still pretty lousy. Go back in time and pass a more adequate stimulus, and maybe things would look different. Keep pummeling Ben Nelson and the centrist GOP Senators about unemployment and aid to state/local governments, and maybe things will start to look different, though it’s too late for the midterms now.

    As a side note, this is part of why I think the Afghanistan-Vietnam thing–especially as a main source of Obama’s troubles–has been overstated. A majority of those of us who are vocal about Afghanistan were vocal about it two, three, five years ago; I don’t think it’s picked up steam as a universal antagonist the way Vietnam did, which is partly to say that I don’t think it’s the kind of material force in most people’s lives that Vietnam was. This is obviously not to belittle the ways in which it does, in fact, matter a whole hell of a lot, or the people on whom it does have a material impact, but I do think we’re too inclined to read it as being of primary political importance. (This is also obviously not an argument about why we shouldn’t extricate ourselves from this morass of a war.)

    Another way of putting all of this is that, as much as I value smart and productive deployments of cynicism, I think most of us have unconsciously internalized a deep cynicism about the relationship between politics and policy, one that forgets about the latter’s impact on the former. “People are tired of big government liberalism and worried about the deficit” is a much different (read: dumber) claim than “people are angry at unemployment, mass foreclosures, and spiraling health care/tuition costs”; ideology is at its strongest and most forceful when it looks least like ideology, and that’s the form of it we really have to deal with.

  2. larsgarvey says:

    And this is exactly why I want to start a blog with you.

    You’re right — ‘stomachs’ can’t be forgotten, not when the phrase ‘hearts and minds’ is being thrown around as it is, my own writing included. Unemployment looks set to be an issue for quite some time, which alone could cause Obama and the entire Democratic party some very serious issues over the next few election cycles, but I had hoped that the impact of Obama’s accomplishments so far might have settled some stomachs and increased confidence in Obama’s ability to alleviate other issues, such as unemployment and jobs creation, if given the time. This hope/assumption made it quite easy to fall in line with Shrum’s LBJ comparison — it’s not Obama’s lack of ability that has him at a distance from the American people, even his supporters, but a disconnect of ‘hearts and minds.’ Sadly, ‘hearts and minds’ would be a far easier fix than ‘stomachs.’

    My concern with the Afghanistan War is not its affects on our hearts, minds, or stomachs now, but after a serious policy change, especially steps towards a complete withdrawal. All the sudden, a war that no one really paid any attention to because of the unemployment rate, the Gulf disaster, etc. is suddenly and powerfully brought back into the public discussion. The American ego is a fragile thing for many of this nation’s citizens, and any end to a war that looks short of American dominance will easily become a talking point for a Republican with an eye on the House, Senate, or Oval Office. I don’t think I’m overstating too much to suggest that an ego blow of that magnitude might cause some stomach aches. LBJ may have been at risk of being the first president to lose a war, but Obama has the added weight of being the president that might “lose” the first conflicts of the War on Terror(ism).

    And you’ve hit upon another very serious issue with your closing remarks on ideology. Unfortunately, the way things are and the way things seem has always been an issue for voters, one that both politicians and journalists/media outlets have taken serious advantage of. I don’t see this issue disappearing any time soon.

  3. b.crusherman says:

    Tell me … why would you expect anything different than what we are getting from this president? He had no leadership or excutive experience. He has little legislative experience and his experience from academia is that of socialist ideology (watche who you hang out with at school) . You both sound like Obama sould be able to deal with the full scope of American politics! The “hearts and minds” of the common folks has been lost. As I have mentioned in other posts, Obama is an “elitist”.” Do as I say, not as I do……. I’ve got mine, well you need to share yours”. This presidents’ regime and the Democrats (and the help from progressive Republicans) have dragged this country to the brink of depression because of ideology…..because that is all they have to offer. He cannot have a “beer summit” for this. This won’t go away after his next vacation (talk about a disconnect http://www.capecodonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100819/NEWS11/100819720 ) he can’t create jobs ( only the private sector can do this http://www.cnbc.com/id/38768328 and no …. it is not a suprise after the 18th time ) and spending taxpayers money to gin up support for the election of Democrats this fall (http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2010/08/19/obamas-fundraising-spree-costs-taxpayers-m-analyst-says/ ) will not win any hearts or minds.
    His only way out is to show leadership, learn from his mistakes, I never would have thought I would say this, maybe he needs to be coached by Bill Clinton…..piss poor character, great politician. LBJ is credited for creating the “Great Society” … how has that bloated government spending worked. His undoing was that and Vietnam. I’m not so sure it is the same for Obama and Afghanistan. O’s domestic policies will be his undoing, Afghanistan is the just the topping on the cake that us peasants well be forced to eat.

  4. b.crusherman says:

    Finding your way to the hearts and minds of Americans really is not that difficult….” W” figured it out long ago. http://exposingliberallies.blogspot.com/2010/08/president-bush-welcomes-troops-home.html

    • Adam says:

      It’s so hard to tell these days whether this juvenile right-wing tripe is deliberate self-parody, but if not, uh . . . you’re really arguing that a president who left office with a 22% approval rating mastered “the hearts and minds of Americans”? By that metric, Nixon could have been homecoming king in 1974. Keep up the good (and intellectually honest!) work, cowboy.

  5. b.crusherman says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wusgcG4rfo&feature=player_embedded One more for the hearts and minds of Americans.

  6. b.crusherman says:

    Adam, you don’t seem to grasp the meaning of ” the hearts and minds of Americans”. You leftist elites should not use poll numbers as proof of this. If you do use poll numbers, at least ( intellectually honest!) use a time line similar to your comparison. In 2002 (18 months after the election) Bush’s approval rating was in the +60% range….where is B.O. now ….in the 40% range?? Also citing a CBS/NYTimes poll is like citing a DNC poll (http://www.pollingreport.com/BushJob.htm) and (http://www.pollingreport.com/BushJob1.htm). Don’t get me wrong here, George Bush was not, in the end, what this country needed. But that is because he helped expand government and government spending. Starting us down this slope, but winning the hearts and minds of Americans will come from leadership…..which includes promoting a compelling vision, inspiring confidence and optimism, being humble and supportive communicating and listening effectively….. Integerity, being accountable. B.O. has shown few of these leadership qualities. He has lost the hearts and minds of Americans already.

    • Adam says:

      Ah, good! The same old substanceless, reactionary ad hominems we all know and love. Nice to see the playbook hasn’t changed in the last few years–stick with the greatest hits, man. Never mind that you don’t know thing one about me (or about, for instance, how far I am from elevated social or financial standing); I must be an “elite,” just like anyone else with the temerity to call you on your transparent nonsense. QED. I promised myself I wouldn’t feed the right-wing trolls more than a comment deep, as it’s even more of a hopeless, counterproductive timesink than Snood, Facebook, or masturbation, but oh well.

      If you have some particular complaint about CBS/NYT’s methodology as a pollster, by all means, present it. Independent reviews have held them up as very sound, and these aggregations of poll numbers don’t at all show otherwise. You can’t get around the fact that Bush was abysmally unpopular at the end of his presidency by saying “well, CBS/NYT was one of the many organizations saying that, and as we all know, they’re leftist conspirators, so it’s an invalid claim!” I know they’re all out to get you, but the simplest explanation (Ockham’s Safety Razor, maybe, since I’m not sure you’re ready for the real thing) isn’t a vast conspiracy to make a lousy president look lousy. Why listen to polls, historians, or political scientists when we’ve got such an inexhaustible wellspring of unsubstantiated right-wing polemic to cite as authoritative? I like, for instance, how in the link you so helpfully provided us in your first comment, you offered solid, irrefutable evidence of your claims: namely, the word “clearly.” That’s a real evidentiary standard. Nice.

      If you’re talking similar time lines, you’d do much better to compare Obama’s approval ratings to Reagan’s, which were roughly identical (Reagan at 42%) at this point in time under similar circumstances. But again, that doesn’t suit your preferred narrative, so I can understand why you’d want to discount or ignore that comparison (see what I mean by intellectual dishonesty?). You may recall Bush’s approval numbers 18 months after the election having been influenced by, oh, I don’t know, some sort of world-historically important event, of the sort that results in temporarily skyrocketing approval ratings. But sure, let’s ignore that for the sake of casting unsubstantiated aspersions and pretending they’re self-evident. That is, after all, the way of you and your political ilk.

      I like how you tangentially accuse me of somehow being intellectually dishonest, by sheer dint of my pointing out the ridiculousness of your comparison (again, note that the Bush-Obama comparison was yours, not mine). If you want to hold up Bush as an example of winning over hearts and minds, fine, but you’re going to have to do a lot more than baselessly assert it. (It’s mildly hilarious to me that you complain about Obama photo ops, and by way of contrast, you post . . . a video of a Bush photo op.) You’re going to have to respond to certain unavoidable facts, e.g. that he inherited a monumental budget surplus and close to a decade of prosperity, that he got an automatic bump from 9/11 and benefited for years from the communal spirit that results from victimization, that he left office one of the most unpopular, despised presidents in history. Again, I don’t know what definition of “intellectual dishonesty” you’re operating under (I’d guess “things with which I disagree”), but pointing out one or more of those facts is far from it.

      Lastly, I do appreciate you so condescendingly informing me that I “don’t seem to grasp the meaning of ‘the hearts and minds of Americans.'” The best part is that you don’t actually assert any concrete, measurable meaning to the phrase, and even the wholly subjective, abstract version you offer doesn’t actually show any difference from “my” usage of the phrase. If you have a sense of what my definition is, what your definition is, and what the difference between the two is, fine. By all means, serve it up. We can talk about the virtues of gauging hearts and minds by polling vs. by consumer enthusiasm vs. by whatever other means. But you’re not actually doing that in any real sense. That’s not how discourse works–you don’t just blindly assert your own prejudices as if they were verifiable fact. And when I say “you,” I obviously mean “one,” since . . that’s exactly what you’re doing.

      Must be some delicious koolaid you’re chugging (sipping is for elitists, after all), but nutritious it is not. I’d suggest rounding out your intellectual diet a bit. You’re far exceeding the recommended daily intake of bullshit.

  7. bcrusherman says:

    Gas $3.75 per gallon, oil futures $106 and climbing, REAL unemployment 16%… Liberials focused on Glenn Beck, priceless.

    This all George Bush and Dick Cheney’s fault……Haliburton Haliburton……

  8. bcrusherman says:

    Nobel Peace Prize – The Tomahawk Edition, focused on ensuring that Libyans can live out their own aspirations and dreams…..

  9. bcrusherman says:

    Oh ….. and why Libya……not the Ivory Coast, Syria, Sudan, Congo…..???? Why, of course!… Oil and Gas for the Europeans!! Hmmm, maybe W is still in charge and BO is just his meat puppet……

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