The ghost of LBJ hovers over the 2012 election
The campaign for the United
States presidential election of November 2012 is gathering pace with a degree of
emerging clarity in the contest for the Republican nomination. There is more certainty
on the Democratic side, in that Barack Obama is sure to run for a second term without
opposition from inside his party.
Yet an event during a previous
contest that might give him a certain pause is an address by his predecessor Lyndon B Johnson on 31 March 1968. LBJ then shocked the United States and
the world by concluding with the announcement that he “would not permit the presidency to be involved
in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year”; and accordingly,”
I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another
LBJ’s professed motive was
a desire to be able to devote his full attention to winning, or at least to extricating
the United States from, a war that was consuming American lives, American resources
and America’s reputation at an unsustainable pace. Some observers maintain that
an additional factor at work was that he feared the possible humiliation of being
denied the Democratic Party nomination by Robert Kennedy.
Whatever the reason, the
certainly unintended consequence of his abdication was a fierce conflict within the Democratic Party punctuated by Kennedy’s
assassination in mid-contest. The result was that Richard Nixon won the 1968 election
for the Republicans. Johnson had ended, not the war, but a generation of Democratic
There is not the remotest
likelihood that Barack Obama will announce that he intends to withdraw from the contest in order to concentrate on winning, or ending, the war
in Afghanistan. But there are uncomfortable similarities between LBJ’s position and the situation President Obama
faces as he strives for re-election.
By early 1968, Johnson’s
political worries were focused on Vietnam, but they also reflected the frustration
of his ambitions to build a “great society” on the foundations of domestic reform.
The tensions were evident as early as spring 1965. Even in the context of extraordinary
domestic legislative achievements (civil rights, voting rights, Medicare for old people,
Medicaid for the poor, aid to federal education, immigration reform and much besides)
Johnson then found himself belaboured by simultaneous crises that threatened to
undermine his presidency: Vietnam, where he made the crucial decisions to send American ground troops to South Vietnam
and to bomb North Vietnam, and Selma, Alabama, the decisive moment of the civil-rights struggle.
Obama has not had to dash
from crisis meetings on Pakistan to those on the budget as Johnson did between Saigon
and Selma in March 1965 - at least, not yet. But he does have to wage battle on
several fronts at once; and in summer 2011 they will require his personal attention
and skilful management if his hopes of re-election are not to be derailed as Johnson’s
The two crises
The two fundamental problems
for the president are the economy (including unemployment and the budget)
and foreign affairs (especially Afghanistan and Pakistan).
The budget crisis is the more urgent and perhaps the more serious. Congress
sets limits, progressively pushed upwards, to the level of United States government debt. The treasury has given its formal opinion
that unless the limit is raised, the United States will default. The effect should
not be exaggerated: the US would continue to be at the centre of the world’s monetary
system. Yet it would be taken around the world as a financial cataclysm; the Nixon
administration’s decision in 1971 to suspend the convertibility of dollars into gold would be trivial
by comparison. By 25 August 2011 the US government is due to repay $25 billion; that would bust the debt limit.
In the past, even when the
Bill Clinton administration was under attack from Newt Gingrich’s congressional
Republicans, Congress has always in the end agreed to raise the debt limit. This
time may be rather different. A Washington Post/ABC poll shows that more than a third of Republican and independents,
and one-fifth of Democrats, are against raising the limit under any circumstances.
More than half of all respondents, of every party, supported an agreement on the
debt limit only when combined with steep reduction in government spending.
Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the
Republican chairman of the House of Representatives’ budget committee and a professed
disciple of Ayn Rand, has produced a “roadmap for the future” that is at once carefully argued,
deeply pessimistic, moralistic and ideologically radical. He calls for deep cuts in healthcare programmes, pensions and other
social entitlements, such as that that retired people should pay two-thirds of their
healthcare costs (rather than one-quarter, as at present). All this is rooted in
a philosophical argument that the present (modest) welfare state, largely established
by Franklin D Roosevelt in the 1930s and LBJ in the 1960s, is contrary to America’s fundamental
beliefs (and worse, “European”).
Ryan’s proposals are controversial
even within his own party. But they are by no means without support. Indeed, Michael
Tomasky reports in the New York Review of
Books that among the new generation of conservatives taxation itself, in so far
as it is redistributive in nature, is wrong. “The theology is rapidly becoming the
conviction”, he writes, “that redistribution of any sort is not merely unsound policy
but is fundamentally immoral”.
The Republicans and the private
healthcare and insurance industries have persuaded many Americans that President
Obama’s healthcare reform – which passed with great difficulty - is both unaffordably
expensive and destructive of the traditional relationship between patient and doctor.
The Republicans are sworn to repeal them, and the president says he will veto repeal.
A ferocious conflict over the budget in general, and healthcare in particular, is
At the same time, sharp divisions
are emerging on foreign policy. The speech by the outgoing defence secretary Robert M Gates about
the reluctance of European governments to support Nato in conflicts outside Europe,
reflects the way the American military (and many ordinary Americans) resent European
failure to follow American judgments of what is to be done.
But Gates’s frustration also
reflects a new reality: the United States, after spending so much on the wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan, cannot in the present fiscal and economic
climate afford limitless increases in military spending nor engagement on more than
essential fronts. This enormous costs of these wars, combined with the exhaustion
and lack of clarity over their objectives at home, is fuelling Republican scepticism over the US’s extended commitments.
Obama is faced with tough
decisions over events in Syria and Yemen today, perhaps over Iran and even Saudi
Arabia in the near future. He may be satisfied by the killing of Osama bin Laden, but he cannot expect that Pakistan
will suddenly - if ever - become a loyal American ally.
He will not simply be able
to send in the Marines, as presidents from Roosevelt to Reagan could do with little
concern for the consequences. It is becoming evident to the White House, as it was
to the late Richard Holbrooke, that the president’s record in foreign policy
will be decided, not by the “surge” in troop numbers in Afghanistan that made the reputation of General David H Petraeus, but by his
success or failure in preventing the collapse of the state in Pakistan.
The Michelle moment
President Obama’s chances
of re-election remain good, but they are not now impregnable. The opinion-poll “bounce” in his popularity
resulting from the successful operation against Osama bin Laden in early May 2011
has disappeared: the president is again on 46% - not
hopeless, but not comfortable either.
There is some hope as well
as a touch of fear for him in the Republican Party’s turmoil. Every week brings
new entries and new withdrawals or (as in the case of Newt Gingrich, a heavyweight
contender with a glass jaw) decisive reversals. In this respect the showcase event
featuring the seven current contenders on 13 June in New Hampshire was revealing.
Mitt Romney confirmed his status as frontrunner, albeit handicapped by his Massachusetts
healthcare reforms (suspiciously similar to Obama’s), his Mormon faith, and the
widespread suspicion that there is a lot less there than meets the eye. (A certain
generation of Americans recalls, when looking at Romney, the description by Teddy
Roosevelt’s daughter Alice, no mean judge of political horseflesh, of Thomas Dewey:
“the little man on the wedding cake”).
A notable absentee from the
New Hampshire event was Sarah Palin, who since 2008 has been the focus of intense
media speculation about her political ambitions. If indeed she fails to run for
the nomination - and even if she does - an even more conservative (or at least outspoken)
figure, the Minnesota congresswoman and Tea Party leader Michelle Bachmann, credited
with a good performance in the debate, may assume her place in the spotlight and in the hearts of many Republicans.
More than the sum of years
separates 1968 and 2012. But what connects these two years is that American politics
are now in a state of bitter division over domestic and foreign policy. Barack Obama
can still win. But there are going to be tears and damage, at home and abroad, before
he ensures a second term.
Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University,
and before that the Observer's correspondent
in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent.
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