‘A TOUGHER ASSIGNMENT’…. We still have about another month until President Obama marks his first year in office, but many observers have already begun considering where Obama’s first year ranks among his modern colleagues’. By most accounts, whether one approves or disapproves of the agenda, the president’s first 12 months appears to rank among the most ambitious and consequential in generations.
The bar tends to be set, of course, by FDR and LBJ. Robert Dallek, an accomplished presidential historian, reflected on the differences.
Dallek said Roosevelt had the “advantage” of a huge crisis to bridge partisan division over the New Deal. Johnson, he said, was “able to invoke [John F.] Kennedy’s legacy” to push through civil rights and Medicare legislation.
“While Obama has had a crisis, it’s not the sort that the opposition would give in to his demands,” he said. “Obama, in a sense, has had a tougher assignment than either Roosevelt or Johnson had. The fact that he’s getting so close on this health-care bill speaks to his talent of leadership, doggedness and determination to put across the biggest piece of social legislation since Social Security.”
The notion that Obama’s task is more challenging than Roosevelt’s or Johnson’s may sound hyperbolic, but I think there’s something to this.
I’ve long thought the most poignant political commentary after the 2000 election a satirical piece from The Onion, in which George W. Bush assured the nation that “our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over.” Similarly, the most poignant observation after the 2008 election came from the same publication, the day after Americans made Obama the president-elect: “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.”
FDR had to address the Great Depression, but in the wake of Hoover, there were plenty of Republicans willing to work with the Roosevelt administration, and a discredited GOP didn’t put up much of a fight. Three decades later, LBJ had a bold, large-scale agenda, but there were still moderate Republicans on the Hill. Neither Roosevelt nor Johnson had to worry about mandatory supermajorities to pass legislation — Filibuster Mania was still decades away.
It’s why I tend to consider the demands on Obama to be almost comical. First, Obama was tasked with rescuing the economy, overseeing two costly wars, improving a deteriorating job market, addressing a crushing debt, and fixing health care, energy policy, immigration, a housing crisis, a collapsing U.S. auto industry, the Gitmo mess, and America’s reputation around the world.
Second, Obama is expected to do all of this without Republican support on anything. The GOP simply pretended that its spectacular failures didn’t discredit the party.
And third, Obama, for the first time in American history, is told that every one of his proposals has to get 60 votes in the Senate to proceed, making it impossible to do much of anything unless Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson approve.
Dallek calls this “a tougher assignment than either Roosevelt or Johnson had.” That sounds like a reasonable assessment.
Of course, the scope of the difficulties doesn’t much matter in a practical or political sense. It’s not as if voters intend to evaluate on a curve — success or failure will be judged at face value. No one at either end of the ideological spectrum wants to hear excuses.
But as the first anniversary approaches, the historical context does add some perspective.