For his first four years, Barack Obama has served largely like John F. Kennedy. The Democrat has been eloquent, graceful and urbane. Like JFK, he has had a few major domestic achievements. And, like Kennedy in the Cold War, Obama largely has not blinked in the war on terrorism.
But at this week’s Democratic convention, as Obama positions himself for another four years, the unemployment rate is stuck at more than 8 percent, the economy is growing at less than 2 percent and the polls show voters prefer Mitt Romney to handle the economy. If the president wants another term, he must persuade undecided voters that he will be a stronger leader.
Republicans certainly used their convention to persuade voters that they will lead. As Obama prepares to answer them, he should think about the style of an overlooked Democratic leader: Lyndon Johnson.
Yes, I know. Obama is very unlike LBJ, just as Kennedy was stylistically different from his vice president. Hubert Humphrey once said, “Johnson was constantly compared to Kennedy, and that was like comparing a heavyweight boxer to a ballet dancer.”
But the heavyweight got a lot more done than the dancer. Humphrey described LBJ, whom he served as vice president, this way:
“Johnson’s presidency was more like a developer moving into an area that needs rehabilitation, renovation and rebuilding. It isn’t pretty at times. There’s a lot of debris laying around, but all at once you see new structures coming up, and it may not be all quite finished, but the structures are there.”
I loved that description of the muscular Texan, which comes from the new book, “Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency.” Mark Updegrove, the presidential historian who heads the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum, put the book together from interviews, tapes and oral histories. And it raises a central issue about that presidency: How could a leader be so flawed and still move a nation ahead?
Curious about that question, I called Updegrove last week to hear his answer.
He said Johnson succeeded in spite of himself because he felt things deeply. Yes, his sensitivities caused him to dwell on perceived snubs from Eastern elites. But he also felt strongly about the racial discrimination of the times. And he cared about poor people across America. Those passions shaped his presidency.
I don’t doubt that our current president has similar passions. You couldn’t have his narrative and not feel strongly about an inclusive society.
But his urbanity gets in the way of those passions. The cool-headed law professor in Obama smothers them. After four years, I’m not sure I really know his core beliefs, other than that government matters. To persuade those on the fence, he must show them what he deeply cares about.
Updegrove offered another insight that Obama should consider if given another term. LBJ excelled because he understood the legislative process. He knew what motivated others and what they needed for LBJ to get their vote.
Obama should let that calculating approach seep into his consciousness. He has not really worked Capitol Hill to his advantage. Yes, he got his health law. But, like JFK, he has inspired more than he has achieved. And before you point out that Republicans have stonewalled him, remember that LBJ had unruly Southern Democrats blocking his civil rights ideas.
Of course, the issues are different today. Johnson wanted to use government to protect the dispossessed. America’s challenge now is right-sizing our government so we can afford it going forward.
Obama has not really led here. If he had dealt with the debt, he’d probably win this race hands-down. But he’s vulnerable, so he should think about portraying himself as a modern LBJ who plans on getting muscular about the debt.
Democrats often don’t know what to do with LBJ’s legacy, perhaps because Johnson was such a raw, complicated figure. But he got things done. Obama must show doubters he can do the same.
William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Write to him at the Dallas Morning News, Communications Center, Dallas, TX 75265 or email@example.com