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L'America di Obama e quella di Johnson


When Barack Obama was elected United States president in November 2008, he was instantly compared with Franklin D Roosevelt: a leader who would use the deep financial and economic crisis he had inherited to transform American politics. The moment seemed propitious to fuse his inspiring human qualities with the clever political calculation expressed by his chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel: "Rule one: Never allow a crisis to go to waste. They are opportunities to do big things."

Even at the time, it seemed to me that a more relevant comparison was with Lyndon Baines Johnson. LBJ had assumed the presidency at a time of perceived national crisis after the assassination of John F Kennedy in November 1963. After eleven months in the White House, the former vice-president was re-elected by what is still the highest proportion of the popular vote in American history.

By spring 1965, violent confrontations over desegregation in the south coincided with Johnson’s first and fateful moves to escalate American involvement in Vietnam. Johnson’s presidency was set on a course that would eventually rob it of forward momentum. In March 1968, Johnson announced that he would not be a candidate for the presidency in that year’s election - an event that can be seen in retrospect as having opened the door to Richard Nixon and (two instances of ineffectual Democratic leadership excepted) forty years of Republican ascendancy.

In a concentrated period of decisive leadership that lasted less than two years, Johnson passed two important acts of healthcare reform, Medicare (for the elderly) and Medicaid (for the poor); two historic civil-rights statutes (the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965); a groundbreaking series of environmental measures; and dozens of education bills, which together secured a substantial role for the federal government in elementary and secondary schools for the first time in American history.

This record, in light of Obama's current predicament and my earlier view that he might usefully be compared with LBJ, invites a closer look at the two presidencies and their contexts.

The verdict

Barack Obama’s extraordinary campaign offered the prospect of an ambitious portfolio of legislative proposals were he to reach the White House. He has now been in office for a little longer than half of that extraordinarily creative period of statesmanship under Lyndon Johnson. So far, his record in persuading Congress to accept them has been dismal. Now his Democratic Party faces the serious danger of comprehensive losses in the congressional elections in November 2010.

There are many ways to register the gap between promise and reality. Here are just three.

First, Obama pledged to restore the United States’s reputation in the international arena by making it plain that the country opposed torture and supported fair trials, due process and the rule of law. The signal of this commitment was a promise to close the Guantánamo prison-camp within a year. But the camp remains open, the administration’s declared intention to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (the alleged architect of the 9/11 atrocities) according to US laws is uncertain, and concern with morale in the CIA seems to trump human rights.

Second, Obama the campaigner voiced doubts over the war in Afghanistan. In practice his new strategy there increases the US’s military involvement and extends its range to Pakistan, albeit as part of a plan that envisages eventual withdrawal. In other areas of foreign policy, the president has been unable to effect a rapprochement with Iran and been treated with disdain by China at the Copenhagen climate-change summit (see “Barack Obama: imperial president, post-American world, 7 December 2009).

Third, Obama’s ambitious domestic projects included cutting America’s dependence on imported energy and intensifying efforts to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. His carbon-trading plan will not reduce total emissions and is unable even to offer guaranteed business opportunities.

The picture is more mixed over two major domestic policy priorities, but even here no outstanding success can be claimed. First, Obama did succeed in pushing through Congress a vast stimulus package that has restored the profitability of the financial-services sector, but does not insist that it perform its social function by lending to individuals and small businesses. Unemployment remains high and corrosive. Second, his healthcare-reform plans have become a shadow of his original proposals and even this is reliant for progress on a parliamentary device (“reconciliation”). Washington is now waiting to see whether that will work (see “The United States: democracy, with interests”, 14 August 2009).

The context

The conclusion is unavoidable. Barack Obama, for all his integrity and talent, genuine charm and rhetorical brilliance, has - so far - failed as a president. Perhaps the most clinching evidence for the claim is that this man who sincerely wanted to bring Americans together, to “reach across the aisle” to Republican opponents, and to find common ground in the centre, has overseen a situation where America’s partisan political divisions are more acerbic than ever.

Many would argue that this summary is exaggerated, and that Obama may yet redeem some of his election promises and achieve some of his proclaimed goals. I do not accept, however, that it is unfair: the verdict could be, and often is, stated in far more critical terms.

The point of a comparison with Lyndon Johnson’s record is not to denigrate Barack Obama, still less to airbrush Johnson’s warts. It is rather to hold up a lens to the ways in which American public life has changed, and for the worse, in the years of the conservative ascendancy.

It can be said that Johnson was lucky - that he took advantage of a “window of opportunity” afforded by a national yearning for reconciliation after the Kennedy assassination. It is true too that some (not all) of Johnson’s legislative achievements had been proposed by Kennedy before his death. But it took Johnson’s own great political qualities - his legislative skill, his understanding of Congress and its individual members, as well as his sheer force of personality - to pass an immense portfolio of legislation, especially the two great civil-rights acts (see Robert Dallek, Lyndon B Johnson: Portrait of a President [Oxford University Press, 2005]).

But other important realities of American public life made Johnson’s achievements possible. They include the assumptions of the period, and the temper and tone of the country’s institutions - not least the news media.

During the cold-war years, and especially after the disgrace of Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954, public life in the United States was dominated by what I have called “the liberal consensus” (see America In Our Time: From World War II to Nixon - What Happened and Why [1976; Princeton University Press, 2005]). This does not mean (as conservative commentators occasionally try to suggest) that America was subject to the will of a liberal elite indifferent to the feelings and interests of “ordinary” Americans; it means that the public sphere, and in particular the mood of Congress, was ruled by a vast if unspoken compact in which the different political sides accepted elements of the other’s doctrine.

Thus, most liberals (who could equally be described as social democrats and progressives) shared the conservative, anti-communist ideology of the era; this was as true of the labour unions as it was of the Kennedy administration. At the same time, most conservatives accepted, if often grudgingly, the underlying principles of Roosevelt’s new deal; this could be said of the majority of elected Republicans, and the dominant figures and thinkers in corporate business-management and the law.

The Kennedy-Johnson years saw many “outliers” to both left and right: union leaders, black leaders, intellectuals on the left, and old Taftite or new Goldwaterite conservatives. But it is possible to speak, without doing violence to the truth, of a liberal consensus in American public philosophy in the period. In broad terms, Americans accepted social-democratic government and a mixed economy at home and the containment of communism as the chief principle of foreign policy.

Since 1968, everything has changed - in such a way that the world in which Lyndon Johnson could dominate the political scene has disappeared into the “urns and sepulchres of mortality”.

Before 1965, each of the two parties that dominated American politics was a coalition of ideologically and demographically distinct elements. The division between them was rooted in the events of the 1860s: civil war, the emancipation of the slaves, the reconstruction of the south and its ending. The legacy of these events was that the core cleavage in American party politics was not a straightforward left-right one.

But since Richard Nixon’s years in power (1968-74), and even more since Ronald Reagan’s (1980-89), the division between the parties has become as ideological - and as much a conflict between “haves” and “have-nots” - as in Europe. The pivot was the events of the 1960s: the civil-rights struggles, the Vietnam war, the early women’s movement, and the decade’s social libertinism (see Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America [Scribner, 2008]).

The change

A less obvious but just as influential movement took place in the intellectual assumptions of the time. In 1950, the eminent liberal intellectual Lionel Trilling could write that there were no conservative ideas as such in America: “[The] conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” Even two decades later, Richard Nixon could say (in an echo of Milton Friedman’s “we are all Keynesians now”) that he was a Keynesian.

Friedman, to be fair, went on to say that in another sense there were no Keynesians left. The pioneering monetarist’s presidential address to the American Economic Association in 1967 helped propel the thought into reality: the subsequent decades saw an inexorable retreat of Keynesian ideas in the academy, in influential institutions such as the federal reserve and the Council of Economic Advisers, finally in Wall Street and corporate management.

The large shift in the intellectual history of the United States in the late 20th century continued as conservative ideas advanced in the law schools and eventually the Supreme Court. The court, once controlled by a liberal majority that accepted the doctrine of social activism inherited from Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis D Brandeis, came to acquire a more or less reliable five-to-four permanent majority on the right. A single example can stand for many: the Buckley vs Valeo judgment in 1974, which held that political ads were free speech and thus protected by the first amendment to the constitution. This ended attempts to reform the electoral-finance system (see “The American political system: ruin and reform”, 11 February 2010).

Perhaps even more important in America’s large-scale move to the right was the changing profile of the news industry. The fashionable depiction of a liberal media establishment had always been exaggerated; the majority of journalists may long have been liberals, but most of their bosses were always conservatives. If the news media had once sustained the “liberal consensus”, however, there has been a steady change over the last half century in the direction of more variety and then more conservatism.

A few landmarks indicate the trend. William F Buckley’s founding of the National Review in 1955 broke the monopoly of liberalism in the intellectual magazines. Robert Bartley’s promotion to head of the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal in 1972 (for which he had worked since 1964) allowed him to make it the vehicle of undiluted conservative propaganda. Between the the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, the three television networks found their New-York-liberal tone gradually diluted - first by the appearance of cable (albeit the pioneering Atlanta-based CNN was relatively liberal), then by the foundation of Fox News, owned by Rupert Murdoch and controlled by Richard Nixon’s spin-doctor Roger Ailes.

The result of this overall social and intellectual progression (or regression) has been a profound change in the United States’s ideological weather. The difference helps to explain why Lyndon Johnson could preside over a monsoon of liberal legislation that completed and in some ways transcended the achievements of his hero Franklin Roosevelt, whereas Barack Obama’s more modest reform efforts have become mired in frustration amid bitter polarisation and populist resurgence (see “It’s the presidency, not the president”, 20 January 2010).

President Obama reached office on the promise of changing America. But the country had already changed. It is time to shift attention from the individual personality and specific failures of the president to what has happened to the United States’s public philosophy and its political-media climate.