Learning from LBJ

By Thomas, Evan; Connolly, Katie | Newsweek, April 5, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Learning from LBJ


Thomas, Evan, Connolly, Katie, Newsweek


Byline: Evan Thomas and Katie Connolly

Obama is more of a persuader than a fighter--but he's still a work in progress.

It's called "the treatment." All presidents administer it, one way or another. The trick is to use the perks of the office and the power of personality to bring around doubters and foes. LBJ was the most outlandish and sometimes outrageous practitioner. With three televisions blasting in the background, Johnson would get about six inches away from the face of some beleaguered or balky senator or cabinet secretary. Sometimes LBJ would beckon the man into the bathroom and continue to cajole or harangue while he sat on the toilet.

Air Force One is a favorite tool presidents use to inspire and overawe. With much guffawing and backslapping, recalcitrant lawmakers are led to a luxurious cabin where they are granted a presidential audience and bestowed with swag, like cuff links with the presidential seal (Johnson gave away plastic busts of himself). Dennis Kucinich, seven-term congressman from Ohio and potential vote-switcher for health reform, was invited aboard Air Force One a couple of weeks before the climactic vote in the House. He had dealt with Presidents Clinton and Bush before, but Obama was different. The president was sitting in shirt sleeves behind a desk, computer to one side, notepad and pen at the ready. "He doesn't twist arms," recalls Kucinich. Rather, the president quietly listened. He was "all business," and sat patiently while Kucinich expressed his concerns, which Obama already knew. Then the president laid out his own arguments. Kucinich wasn't persuaded by the president, he told NEWSWEEK. But he voted for the bill because he did not want the presidency to fail, and he was convinced Obama would work with him in future.

A president's first year in office is often a time for learning. The harshest lessons are beginners' mistakes, like the Bay of Pigs fiasco for JFK. The real key is to figure out how to use the prestige of the office to get things done: when to conserve your political capital, and when and how to spend it. Judging from Obama's campaign, which revolutionized politics with its ability to tap grassroots networks of donors and activists, many expected President Obama to go over the heads of Congress and mobilize popular passions to achieve his top priorities. But on what may be his signature issue, that wasn't really the case.

Obama came close to prematurely ending his effectiveness as president before finally pulling out the stops. In the last push for the health-care bill, he reminded voters of Obama the candidate, fiery and full of hope. But during the health-reform bill's long slog up and around Capitol Hill, Obama was a strangely passive figure. He sometimes seemed more peeved than engaged. His backers naturally wondered why he seemed to abandon the field to the tea partiers. The answer may be that at some level he just doesn't like politics, not the way Bill Clinton or LBJ or a "happy warrior" like Hubert Humphrey thrived on the press of flesh, the backroom deal, and the roar of the crowd. That doesn't mean Obama can't thrive or be successful--even Richard Nixon was elected to two terms. But it does mean that the country is run by what New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wryly called "the conquering professor"--a president who leads more from the head than the heart, who often relies more on listening than preaching.

Obama entered politics as a community organizer, and as a presidential candidate he oversaw an operation that brilliantly organized from the ground up. So it was a puzzle to Marshall Ganz, a longtime community organizer, that Obama seemed to neglect the basic rule of a grassroots organizer: to mobilize and, if necessary, polarize your popular base against a common enemy. Instead, President Obama seemed to withdraw and seek not to offend while Congress squabbled. "It was a curiously passive strategy," says Ganz, who worked for 16 years with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers and now teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School.

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