The Corner

Why Obama Might Be LBJ (and Not JFK)

A youthful charismatic President . . . an intelligent and photogenic wife . . . cute young children running around the White House . . . accused of being soft on America’s enemies . . . accused of being too inexperienced for the job . . . surrounded by the best and brightest academics. The comparison with JFK was irresistible even before Obama was elected president and hasn’t let up since inauguration.

But of course the best analogies between presidents shouldn’t be based on superficial issues like youth and inexperience, or the accusations of political enemies — they should be based on principles, policies, and reactions to domestic as well as world events. And on these grounds, Obama resembles LBJ far more than JFK.

LBJ inherited a series of foreign crises from his predecessor (Southeast Asia, of course, but also Cuba, the Cold War, and a worsening relationship with Europe), yet his entire personal interest was domestic policies. LBJ believed above all else in social justice, and his primary policy focus was the Great Society that he hoped to create through righting race relations, a war on poverty, and health care for all.

LBJ’s beliefs about American national interests led him to adopt the foreign policies of his predecessor, even keeping on JFK’s foreign policy team, and to seek to win the battles over his domestic policies, while being content to manage crises abroad through military and area experts. Throughout his tenure LBJ never lost his hatred for the conflict in Vietnam, calling it that “bitch of a war” because of the way it distracted him and the American people from the remaking of society, the only issue that truly mattered to him.

This pattern should sound familiar. Obama has not kept Bush’s foreign policy team, but he has retained key figures — including Secretary of Defense Gates and Afghanistan/Iraq war czar Lute — and he has adopted even the most controversial of his predecessor’s foreign policies. Even the mini “escalation” in Afghanistan seems eerily similar to LBJ’s escalations in 1964-5.

Yet Obama has been quick to appoint domestic policy czars who reflect his own beliefs in social justice and how to achieve it; quick to make detailed and well thought-out pronouncements on how his views of reshaping society differ from those of his predecessor; and quick to fight and win the domestic battles on the Hill while declining to even engage in a battle over the war on terror. All this suggests the same lack of personal interest in foreign matters combined with an overwhelming interest in domestic policy that dominated the LBJ White House.

The foreign problems that we face — Afghanistan, al Qaeda, Iran, North Korea, Iraq, the global financial crisis, and Mexico, among others — demand the constant attention of the President, not managing by lower-level officials. Obama has years to learn the details of these issues, but will he also develop the personal passion that is necessary to want to pay attention to them? The lesson of LBJ suggests that we can expect rocky years ahead if he does not.

– Mary Habeck was a strategic planner in the National Security Council, 2008-2009.