Jewish World Review July 30, 2009 / 9 Menachem Av 5769
Why Obama can't pull an LBJ
By Dick Polman
As a political junkie who got hooked in the late '60s, I never thought I'd see the day when people would resurrect
Back in the day, few thought well of LBJ. He got waist deep in the big muddy of
That was LBJ at his best. Which is why some esteemed commentators are urging President Obama to channel the big fella in the health-care debate. The advice is understandable. Health-care reform is not just an issue; it's a political metaphor that may well determine whether Obama succeeds or fails as president.
His quest to fix the dysfunctional system is grinding through five congressional committees, and it's tough to tell who's in charge. Obama has set broad goals (promote choice, cover the uninsured, control costs), but he has set no specifics on how to achieve those goals. Instead, he says he is waiting "to see what emerges from these committees," few of which seem to agree on anything. Sometimes it seems as if we're all hostage to the whims of a
Hence, the call for Obama to seize his "Johnson moment."
These people are dreaming.
Johnson was a creature of
Lacking LBJ's inside moves, Obama has gone with his outside game. His grassroots political arm, Organizing for America, has run TV ads targeting red-state Democratic senators — such as
Maybe LBJ could have knocked their heads together, and ordered them not to worry about deepening the deficit. But I wonder about that. In Obama's defense, LBJ never had to deal with the kind of fiscal headaches that persist today. When Johnson was twisting arms for his Great Society agenda, the economy was booming,
Johnson also had far stronger prevailing winds at his back; he had won a landslide election in the aftermath of the JFK assassination, and he enjoyed two-thirds majorities in both congressional chambers. And while playing his inside game — most commonly known as "the Johnson treatment," he had a weapon that Obama dare not employ.
That's a dirty word today; so is its synonym, the "earmark." But back in LBJ's heyday, that was a staple of doing business. That's how he was able to cajole and threaten the lawmakers. When someone was dragging his feet on the
There's a great story about the time that Democratic Sen.
People seem to want Obama to act like LBJ, but Obama would be fried in the press if he tried anything like that. Pork is a symptom of the old
With respect to health-care reform, perhaps the current congressional sausage-making would be more coherent, and perhaps the public would be more reassured, if Obama was drawing lines in the sand. Perhaps he's being too passive and relying too much on his outside game. But even LBJ at his best would have a tough time corralling the conservative Democrats, the grassroots liberals, the doctors, the hospitals, the insurers, the lobbyists, the bloggers, the Tweeters, all the paraphernalia of contemporary politics.
The bottom line, often overlooked, is that health-care reform is now further in the pipeline than ever before. Obama may lack LBJ's inside game, but he deserves some credit for that. And he knows that his window of opportunity won't stay open for long, that "the aura and the halo" will inevitably "disappear."
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Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Comment by clicking here.
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