In our current economic malaise, with 77 percent of Californians thinking the country is off track, people have been pointing out parallels between President Obama and Jimmy Carter — even Herbert Hoover. But in Obama’s address to Congress on Thursday night another even more ominous ghost seemed to hover at his elbow: Lyndon Johnson’s. For Democrats, that spells disaster. For the country, it may mean the roughest electoral season we’ve seen in 40 years.
Certainly the arcs of both presidencies have been eerily similar. Like Obama, Lyndon Johnson came into the Oval Office after a national trauma — in Obama’s case, the 2008 economic meltdown, in Johnson’s the assassination of JFK.
Like Obama, Johnson found himself wrapped in an hysterical, almost messianic aura of goodwill, which he immediately leveraged into spending huge sums of money on ambitious big government programs — all the while promising to stay out of conflicts overseas, especially in a faraway place called Vietnam. “We’re not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away form home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves,” was the way he put it, and American voters believed him.
Instead of creating a Great Society, Johnson created a massive political and racial rift across the country, with bloody riots in Detroit and other American cities, amid growing budget deficits and spiraling inflation. And the man who promised not to send American boys to war had sent half a million of them into Vietnam in a conflict he seemed unable to either win or end.
By the fall of 1967 Johnson’s poll numbers had tumbled from stellar heights to 39 percent — about where Obama’s are now. Any proposal bearing the name Lyndon Johnson was dead on arrival in the minds of the America public. And so it was that a handful of Democrat activists led by Allard Lowenstein, began to search around for someone to run against Johnson in the fall, not only to save their party but the country from the precipice toward which it was hurtling.
So where are we today?
Like Johnson then, Obama now seems to be a president no longer in control over what’s happening. People sense that he is presiding over growing disorder at home and abroad that’s driven by forces he does not understand and is unwilling to confront. Americans, even the president’s loyal base, will stand for many things, but not that. They will instead swivel decisively toward anyone who projects a sense that they will get a grip on the reins and deal with the crisis before it cripples the country.
In 1968, that was Richard Nixon. In 2012, it will be just about anyone the Republican party puts forward as their candidate.
What was most striking about President Obama’s speech Thursday wasn’t the recycled rhetoric about fixing our schools and bridges and making millionaires and billionaires pay more of their fair share — or the titters from the GOP benches, as they watched an increasingly irrelevant president dissolve into self-caricature.
It was the stunned faces of Democrats as they realized they are facing electoral oblivion in 2012 unless something is done about the man at the top of their team.
It took until March 1968, after the Tet offensive turned the trickle of defections from the president’s reelection camp into a stampede, for Johnson to finally face reality. He withdrew from the race, even though he had yet to lose a primary.
But it was too late to save the Democrats — and almost too late to save the country. Vietnam and race had rent the party and the nation from top to bottom. The one Democrat who could have restored a sense of control, Robert Kennedy, would be cut down by an assassin’s bullet a month later — as was Martin Luther King. Riots and violent protest became the daily norm in American cities and across college campuses. As for Nixon, his election in 1968 marked the emergence of a Republican majority that would sweep every state but one four years later — and deepened a bitter polarization in politics and culture which lasts to this day.
Johnson’s days of promise became a legacy of failure, both for his party and for America.
So no one should be surprised when some Democratic congressmen opened up to New York Times this weekend about their doubts about Obama’s reelection chances — or if other Democrats with long memories seem a little subdued these next few weeks.
It’s possible they just saw a ghost.