President Johnson meets with Cyrus Vance at the LBJ Ranch. [LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto. #W532-20]

Obama needs LBJ’s style

Sep 03, 2012

by William McKenzie

For his first four years, Barack Obama has served largely like John F. Kennedy. The Democrat has been eloquent, graceful and urbane. Like JFK, he has had a few major domestic achievements. And, like Kennedy in the Cold War, Obama largely has not blinked in the war on terrorism.

But at this week’s Democratic convention, as Obama positions himself for another four years, the unemployment rate is stuck at more than 8 percent, the economy is growing at less than 2 percent, and the polls show voters prefer Mitt Romney to handle the economy. If the president wants another term, he must convince undecided voters that he will be a stronger leader.

Republicans certainly used their convention to convince voters that they will lead. As Obama prepares to answer them, he should think about the style of an overlooked Democratic leader: Lyndon Johnson.

Yes, I know. Obama is very unlike LBJ, just as Kennedy was stylistically different from his vice president. Hubert Humphrey once said, “Johnson was constantly compared to Kennedy, and that was like comparing a heavyweight boxer to a ballet dancer.”

But the heavyweight got a lot more done than the dancer. Humphrey described LBJ, whom he served as vice president, this way:

“Johnson’s presidency was more like a developer moving into an area that needs rehabilitation, renovation and rebuilding. It isn’t pretty at times. There’s a lot of debris laying around, but all at once you see new structures coming up, and it may not be all quite finished, but the structures are there.”

I loved that description of the muscular Texan, which comes from the recent book, Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency. Mark Updegrove, the presidential historian who heads the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum, put the book together from interviews, tapes and oral histories. It raises a central issue about that presidency: How could a leader be so flawed and still move a nation ahead? read more

Dallas Morning News editorial columnist William McKenzie may be contacted at wmckenzie@dallasnews.com. He also moderates Texas Faith at dallasnews.com/texasfaith and blogs at educationblog.dallasnews.com.