President Lyndon B. Johnson shakes the hands of soldiers as he visits American troops in Vietnam, 1966. [Photo by Interim Archives/Getty Images]

President Lyndon B. Johnson shakes the hands of soldiers as he visits American troops in Vietnam, 1966. [Photo by Interim Archives/Getty Images]

We want our politicians to act like LBJ. But not really.

Aug 21, 2014

By Matt Bai
published in Yahoo News on August 18, 2014

The problem with Barack Obama, people are always telling me these days, is that he just doesn't love the full contact sport of politics. He has no capacity for the inside machinations or tactical brutality we associate with a more sophisticated and celebrated president like Lyndon Johnson.
What we really need, I guess, is an executive in the mold of a Chris Christie or an Andrew Cuomo or a Rick Perry, all of whom are more extroverted and more brazen about wielding their power as governors than Obama is — and all of whom, not incidentally, are now fending off prosecutors and investigations while scrambling to keep their national ambitions afloat.

And this illustrates an interesting paradox of modern politics: We love this idea of the ruthless and effective political operator, right up until the moment we're confronted by the reality.

There are differences, of course, among the governors I just mentioned and the controversies in which they find themselves tangled. Christie's closest aides rained down havoc on the good, unsuspecting people of Fort Lee, N.J., just to prove a point about the perils of crossing the governor (though Christie has maintained he didn't know about the infamous bridge closure, and no one has yet turned up evidence to the contrary). Cuomo unceremoniously closed the doors of an anti-corruption commission he himself created less than a year earlier, arrogantly proclaiming that it was his commission and he could do what he wanted with it.

And then there's Perry, whose macho mug shot ricocheted around Twitter this week. He'll soon be indicted on charges that he tried to bully a Democratic district attorney from office after she was picked up for drunken driving, first by vetoing her state funds and then by offering to restore them only if she quit. Apparently, obnoxiousness is now a crime in Texas, albeit one of the few that can't get you executed.

But there's a common theme in all of this, which is that all three governors were doing exactly the thing Obama's Democratic detractors and sympathetic commentators so often pound him for not doing — stretching the boundaries of your authority in order to outmaneuver adversaries and ultimately get your way. (Ironically, it's also the thing Republicans insist Obama actually does too often, which is why they're suing him, but that's another story.)

You want the kind of elected executive who's going to make the machine work the way he wants it to, even if he has to grab a sledgehammer and bang a few parts into place? Well, this is what it looks like. It's not especially ennobling, and it never was.

Lately there's a lot of admiration for Johnson, who's often portrayed, in this age of entrenched dysfunction and colorless politicians, as a charismatic, needy rogue who knew how to make Washington work. The truth is that the things Johnson did for the purpose of amassing power would make Rick Perry quiver like a little girl. read more