12/10/2014 08:27 am ET Updated Feb 09, 2015

Obama v. Johnson: Obama Wins


The widely-accepted critique of Obama is that his cool, detached and depersonalized style has cost him and the country dearly. No relationships with the Congress, White House-centric controls on agencies, and a lone wolf approach to running the country that doesn't work.

That meme was advanced to me this week by a very savvy and experienced Democratic operative, who bemoaned the state of the country, and the Democratic Party as we await The Time Of Hillary. "Lyndon Johnson knew how to make things happen." he said, "Obama doesn't."

It's an interesting perspective and almost completely an insider's view of history. Johnson's storied ability to pressure his fellow Southerners on Civil Rights and poverty issues was a function of post-assassination Kennedy politics and an historic shift in the national attitude towards race. It's just as possible that an Eisenhower-ish hands off approach would have yielded the same result.

What's not arguable is that the Johnson presidency collapsed over Vietnam, and the ghastly loss of blood and treasure it caused. The same arm-twisting and pressure that looked so effective on domestic issues was a disaster of much greater proportion on the defining issue of the Johnson years. I've got no nostalgia for the Lyndon Johnson presidency, nor for his governing style.

Comes now Obama, who seems to have embraced the opposite approach. He's cool and detached to be sure. But whatever his style, he's entitled to judgement on the evidence, and to application of the question Ronald Reagan asked the American people in 1980. "Are you better off now that you were four years ago?" It was a brilliant stroke then, and a fair measure of any president.

As I understand reality we are mostly out of two wars, trying diplomacy rather than military adventure to resolve conflicts, the job market is partially/largely recovered, the stock market is at an all-time high, millions of Americans have health care coverage, health care costs seem under control, and we're moving toward addressing income and opportunity inequality. Lots of things are not where they should be, for sure. The economic pressure on the middle class is not getting better, education costs have skyrocketed, Wall Street still runs Washington, the immigration crisis is unresolved, the national security state flourishes. But it seems to me that, good and bad taken together, the country is in remarkably better shape than it was six years ago.

I understand the unwillingness of Republicans to admit all this, for political and ideological reasons. They're largely stuck in thrall to their Tea Party reactionary wing, on social and economic policy. Their offer to the American people is failed economic austerity and social policy that play well in the Old South and Far West. They're going to find that distaste for Obama won't win a Presidential election.

But Democrats? Hillary is making decisions about how to present herself to the American people. The mistakes of 2008 are behind her, but there's no assurance that she sees more deeply into 2016 than the Obama-skeptics. She needs to be able to answer the challenge Ronald Reagan propounded, not an insiders view of the stylistic sins of Obama. A genuine, programmatic concern for the economic condition of the middle class would be a great start, coupled with a willingness to reject the Lyndon Johnson Model of the presidency.