Politics and Public Opinion

The Worrisome Similarities Between Obama and LBJ

In the same vein as my previous post comparing President Obama and LBJ, Peter Baker of the New York Times has an excellent article in Sunday’s paper exploring the same analogy. Especially noteworthy are Baker’s quotes from renowned historians David Kennedy and Robert Caro, both of whom observe worrisome similarities between LBJ and the Obama White House’s current challenges.

According to the Baker story, Obama himself is mindful of the LBJ pitfalls:

By several accounts, that risk weighs on Mr. Obama these days. Mr. Kennedy was among a group of historians who had dinner with Mr. Obama at the White House earlier this summer where the president expressed concern that Afghanistan could yet hijack his presidency. Although Mr. Kennedy said he could not discuss the off-the-record conversation, others in the room said Mr. Obama acknowledged the L.B.J. risk.

This story appeared the same day as Admiral Mullen expressed his growing concern at Afghanistan’s deterioration, and as worrisome hints appeared of tensions between the U.S. military, which needs more forces to accomplish the mission, and the Obama administration, which is reluctant to commit any more troops to a war that has dwindling public support.

If this White House keeps a file drawer titled “We Know We Have a Problem When…,” then surely a New York Times article comparing Obama to LBJ, and Afghanistan to Vietnam, deserves its own folder. (So do Jim Hoagland columns citing world leaders wondering if Obama is “weak,” which hardly inspire confidence about his ability to maintain European support for the Afghanistan mission.) The political risk for this White House is for the LBJ analogy to become conventional wisdom. The policy risks are that they make the wrong decisions in trying to avoid LBJ’s mistakes, and precipitously pull back from Afghanistan in order to focus on passing a questionable domestic agenda.

But just as historical analogies can be illustrative, they can also easily become overdetermined. An LBJ-type failure is by no means inevitable. Going back to his campaign, Obama has shown a remarkable resilience, and an ability to learn and adapt. If so, the way to avoid an LBJ-style fate is to resist the temptation to promote fiscally reckless domestic programs, to show consistent and honest leadership with the American people on the strategic importance of the Afghanistan mission, and to provide the military with the support they need to win.

William Inboden is senior vice president of the Legatum Institute.

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