Obama is no LBJ, but 2014 is no 1964

It has become a familiar lament, and a panel on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday reproduced it perfectly: Why does President Barack Obama seem so ill-equipped to meet the challenges of the moment.

Amid sagging job approval ratings, prompted by a series of crises abroad and an economic recovery that more closely resembles a new recession, a panel of political veterans pondered all the reasons why Obama seems to be floundering.

Vanity Fair’s Todd Purdum, the author of a book on the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, was asked by CBS host Bob Schieffer whether Obama has the mastery of the forms of political persuasion which Lyndon Johnson so skillfully wielded. Purdum noted that LBJ maintained lines of communication open to both his supporters and opponents in Congress, something Obama acknowledges he failed to do in his first term. Purdum was, however, careful to add that Congress and the republic are fundamentally different today than they were then.

“It’s astounding that 50 years ago, people basically did the right thing for the right reason, and sort of fundamental decency and common sense prevailed,” Purdum observed in a rather stunning admonition of the present generation.

“I hope we can somehow find a way be more like we used to be,” Schieffer mourned.

True, Obama is no LBJ. Obama is not even Bill Clinton – not the Bill Clinton who has positioned himself a partisan firebrand now that he is out of office, but the leader who sought to rebrand his tarnished party as a centrist force for compromise. But 2014 is neither 1964 nor is it even 1997.

Before the Monica Lewinsky scandal got in the way in 1997, according to The Pact author Steven Gillon, the White House and the Republican-led Congress were reportedly on the verge of crafting a bipartisan deal which would have partially privatized social security and might have branded the Democratic Party the force for sound and solvent entitlements. Partisan politics got in the way of that deal and entitlement reform will have to wait for a new generation of compromisers, and no one was happier about that than Democrats.

“How Monica Lewinsky saved social security,” wrote author and film producer Jane Hamsher in FireDogLake. “Liberals who are dreading the scandal-mania that is taking hold should note that it contains a potential upside: It could make a Grand Bargain that includes cuts to Medicare and Social Security benefits even less likely than it already is,” The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent wrote.

Many have suggested that it was Obama’s intention when he drafted Erskine Bowles, the facilitator of the original “Pact” between Clinton and Newt Gingrich, to co-chair a debt reduction commission along with Alan Simpson in 2011, to attempt to complete the work began in 1997. But the circumstances which nearly facilitated a grand bargain at the close of the 20th Century no longer prevailed in the second decade of the 21st Century.

The seemingly stagnant and occasionally contracting U.S. economy has turned members of Congress into the political equivalent of hoarding survivalists. The shrinking American pie has made both Republicans and Democrats less amenable to compromises, and the elimination of earmarks has removed a critical incentive which once induced recalcitrant members to make concessions.

So when people like Schieffer lament that the way we were in the 1960s was preferable human nature today, he does a disservice to the American character. The fundamental American nature which made the republican government a practical proposition for the last 230 plus years remain in place, but the circumstances of the time in which we live have changed. The methods Democratic presidents once used to effect great change are no longer viable.

Whereas Johnson and Clinton could rely on the post-war American largess to grease the wheels of Congress, that tool is no longer available. The overflowing barrels of pork which so many congressional navigators once used to secure support for great reforms have run dry. It will take a new type of leader to guide a majority of 535 nakedly self-interested voting members toward a single end. To the extent that presidents like Roosevelt could rely on force and coercion and the promise of the state to pass his agenda in another time of want, the new strain of libertarianism coursing through the country means that the 21st Century presidency requires a new kind of engagement.

Both Republican and Democratic partisans are growing more polarized, making compromise between their representatives that much harder. Rapidly changing political circumstances have made the old tools that once facilitated compromise obsolete. Obama’s 20th Century approach to 21st Century problems has failed, and it is in a failure that a new approach to the presidency is formed. Let’s hope that Obama’s successor brings a few new ideas to the Oval Office.