It isn’t always pretty, but sometimes it’s effective. As my mother has said, “Sometimes you have to go down to people’s level for them to know that you’ll go there, and ultimately for them to respect you or fear you enough that they won’t ever provoke you into going there again.”
Jonathan Alter, bestselling author of The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, which chronicles the Obama era of American politics, described to me that Johnson and Obama, and the eras in which they led, are so different that it isn’t fair to compare the two. “It’s an unfair comparison because the times are so different. LBJ had huge Democratic majorities and could use pork—projects in districts—in exchange for votes.”
But Alter explained that one of Obama’s shortcomings is something that has been reported to be one of Johnson’s strengths. “If Obama schmoozed more, as I note in The Center Holds in a chapter called ‘Missing the Schmooze Gene,’ he would help himself at the margins, which is where a lot of politics play out. It might not get many Republican votes, but he could win a few more small battles.”
Even when dealing with those who hated him, Johnson and his wife were known for their attention to detail, asking about family members, remembering favorite recipes when someone visited the White House, and so on. These are qualities that the president, unlike his most recent predecessors—Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton—isn’t known for, and they’re not really qualities that can be faked or taught.
But despite all that, Alter ultimately concluded that there are many more reasons to be grateful for an Obama presidency. “It’s a good thing he’s not more like LBJ on foreign policy, where we lost tens of thousands of American lives in Vietnam for nothing.”
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.
Editor’s note: Read a different perspective from The Root’s associate editor David Swerdlick here.