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Sunday, Aug. 23, 2009

COUNTERPOINT

Obama hails Lincoln — but is he on course to fail the LBJ way?


"Some of our bankers had shown themselves either incompetent or dishonest in their handling of the people's funds. They had used the money entrusted to them in speculations and unwise loans. . . . It was the government's job to straighten out this situation and do it as quickly as possible, and the job is being performed."

Thus spoke U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt on March 12, 1933, in his first fireside chat on radio to the nation. Three days before, Congress, at his urging, had passed the Emergency Banking Act. Consequently, U.S. banks, closed as a result of the president's proclamation of March 6, reopened on the 13th. (FDR was only inaugurated on March 4; that's action!)

Thanks to the act, the Federal Reserve guaranteed 100 percent of the public's savings. Confidence, lost when the stock market crashed in October 1929, was back.

Since his inauguration, on Jan. 20, 2009, President Barack Hussein Obama has acted resolutely to reverse decisions by this generation's "incompetent or dishonest" bankers. In fact, BHO is often compared to FDR with his mild-mannered yet forthright speaker's voice and his commitment, proven on the streets of Chicago, to social justice. He wishes to go down in history as the president who scooped America out of deep recession.

Obama himself has ardently studied the deeds and works of another president, Abraham Lincoln, who held the nation's highest office from 1861-65.

In Lincoln's time, the rift between the states had widened to the point where 11 southern states seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America, so presenting the United States with its greatest crisis since the founding of the republic in 1789. Lincoln's policy was to offer the hand of reconciliation, not punishment, to the Confederate states: His theme was inclusivity.

Obama's policy of "outreach" to the Republicans, who divided the nation and devastated its ideals just as surely as the Confederacy once did, takes its inspiration from Lincoln.

Yet, inspiration and heavily cosmetic gestures aside, Obama bears a striking resemblance in the thrust and direction of his presidency to a much more recent, Democratic president, namely Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), who held that office from 1963-69.

Both LBJ and Obama came to power in their first election with handsome majorities, in Johnson's case — with more than 60 percent of the popular vote — a landslide. His opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater, carried a mere six states, of which only his home state of Arizona was not in the South.

LBJ, like BHO today, was dedicated to the causes of social justice. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made racial segregation in public and the workplace illegal. LBJ declared war on poverty and reformed the medical establishment with the introduction, in 1965, of a comprehensive system of care for the elderly. Obama, too, is treating health care as a top priority.

LBJ, who assumed office in November 1963 when Pres. John Kennedy was assassinated, retained many of JFK's Ivy League advisers, including the late president's brother, Robert, as attorney general. Obama, too, has relied significantly for advice, particularly in economic policy, on the retinue of the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton. His appointment of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state stresses the breadth of this continuity.

The best and the brightest for both LBJ and BHO were, and are, Democratic center-liberals, though Obama has continued to use the secretary of defense, Robert Gates, of the preceding president, George W. Bush — clearly attesting to the fact that Obama sees himself, like Lincoln, as a healer. This is the first time in U.S. history that a secretary of defense has survived a change in ruling party.

But is it wise, I wonder, to emphasize conciliation with the party that for eight years pursued a politics, both within and outside the country, of aggressive confrontation and venal character assassination at every turn?

Is it truly "changing" the nation to prop up the very same self-aggrandizing bankers who, having lapped up $175 billion in government loans — as reported by Frank Rich on Aug. 9 in the New York Times — have showered themselves with more that $32 billion in bonuses this year?

Bankers aside, the final and determining fact shared by the administrations of LBJ and BHO is the fact of war.

Both presidents inherited wars in faraway countries — for Johnson, Vietnam; for Obama, Afghanistan and Iraq. Both set their sights on pursuing those wars to victory. LBJ's "escalations" in Indochina are BHO's "surges" in Afghanistan. What was called "pacification" in one era is labeled "softening up" today. But the reality is the same: the U.S. masking its overseas aggression and covetousness in the name of an ideal (be it called "freedom," "democracy," or "peace for our children and our children's children").

It was the mass protest movement of the late 1960s that destabilized LBJ and forced his successor, Richard Nixon, to sue for peace and get the U.S. out of Vietnam. Obama's America has seen no such protest. The huge demonstrations in the U.S. over Geoge W. Bush's Middle East intervention had no effect on the nation's leaders, so cynically dismissive of democratic values as they were. Today, there is more protest over health-care proposals than wars that are far more costly in every way. The Bush sickness is still pandemic in America, while the miseries of its traumatized veterans and bereaved troops' families are airbrushed from the news.

Americans today are more concerned about putting the car back in the garage and the chicken in the pot than they are about the consequences of distant wars. They have bought the government line, extended to them by every administration — Obama's included — that fighting on faraway fronts will keep them safe at home. Actually, the longer the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan goes on, the greater the threat to the "homeland," as such fighting only foments anger against the U.S.

America's allies in those wars are, however, softening their commitment to them. The British, who, with 9,000 military personnel in Afghanistan, are second to the U.S. in commitment, are not immune to grief and soul-searching over the sacrifices of their troops. It may be only a matter of time before they, and others, pull out and leave the U.S. as the lone outside force involved in the region's hostilities.

LBJ chose not to run for office in 1968. That decision marked a de facto acknowledgement of his war guilt. Obama will almost certainly run for office in 2012, and — barring colossal economic or security catastrophes — be re-elected.

Obama may succeed in instigating some social reforms once the banking industry and its lobbyists are mollified. He may even manage to set the economy onto an even keel. But his presidency, like LBJ's, may well be defeated by distant wars engaged in without a credible exit strategy. If you want a definition of "unwinnable," it is this.

That Obama inherited his wars and, at least in the case of Iraq, was firmly opposed to one of them, may turn him into a tragic figure in American history — an LBJ writ large. If that does come to pass, this time the loss for the U.S. will be incalculable and, in all likelihood, irreversible.



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