Out of the Woods / Where are you now, LBJ, when we need you?
I have been hearing more and more from my Westport friends about how badly President Barack Obama is doing in the polls as a result of his failure to communicate effectively with the voters. Even more importantly, they say, his stated desire for a bipartisan approach with Congress has failed because of his inexperience in dealing with them.
While Obama's genuine effort to reach across the aisle has been commendable, he has failed to build relationships with Democrats and Republicans alike with whom he can really talk turkey. That's one reason he is constantly being rebuffed and, quite frankly, allowed himself to be stereotyped by his opposition as weak and lacking backbone.
During my newspaper career, I had the opportunity to interview the late President Lyndon B. Johnson. It is clearly a stretch to say that I "knew "Lyndon Johnson. Nor can I claim that Johnson was a "friend" of mine. But believe me, Barack Obama is no Lyndon Johnson.
There was a time when Obama supporters like myself would have winced if anyone suggested that Obama act more like Johnson in the Oval Office. Obama, his loyal supporters maintain, stands above the kind of behind the scenes deal-making for which the "flawed giant" -- as historian Robert Dallek called Johnson -- was known.
According to a biography of Johnson that Dallek wrote, Johnson once told historian Doris Kearns Goodwin: "There is but one way for a president to deal with Congress and that is continuously, incessantly, and without interruption. If it's really going to work, the relationship between the President and the Congress has got to be almost incestuous. He's got to know them even better that they know themselves. And then, on the basis of this knowledge, he's got to build a system that stretches from cradle to the grave, from the moment a bill is introduced to the moment it is officially enrolled as the law of the land."
This may sound a little excessive to sophisticated Obama supporters who once believed that his sincere, intellectual appeal to his opposition to work together with him was good politics, and a fresh breath of air. But just as soon as the Republican leadership publicly stated that the party's primary mission was to make Obama a one-term president, Obama should have changed his strategy.
It was all well and good for him to make a one-on-one attempt at a "grand bargain" with Republican Speaker of the House John Buehner on the bitter struggle over how to raise the debt ceiling, but that only proved that trying to make a buddy out of one member of the opposition was not sufficient -- especially with the Tea Party lurking in the wings to undercut Buehner.
From a rereading of Obama's book, "The Audacity of Hope," I now realize just how idealistic and impractical some of his observations about politics in America were. Nonetheless, all throughout the 2008 campaign, he engendered a spark of genuine hope and optimism among millions of Americans, including myself.
My fellow Obama supporters now ask me, "What happened? Where did that Barack Obama go? Did he raise our expectations to an unrealistic level so he was bound to fall short?"
The answers to these questions are simply this: Obama is still the same man of character; our expectations had to fall short because of the unrelenting, stubborn GOP drive to dump him.
The Republicans oppose the president in every way every day. There can be no doubt that while it has been unspoken, they resent "The Aloof One"--as one columnist described Obama the other day--and, I would go as far as to say, they are jealous of his steady-as-you-go, rational approach to politics. The Republicans simply cannot deal with reason and civility.
Further, and this is almost impossible to document, many political observers have attributed the hostility by some members of Congress to the fact that Obama is our first black president and not a member of the good old Beltway Club. Even when he was a U.S. senator, he was treated like an outsider. He also is seen by some Republicans as having risen too high too fast, leaving some members of the Senate and the House resentful.
In point of fact, Obama brought this predicament on himself to some extent. In his book, The Audacity of Hope -- and this has been overlooked in the media from the beginning -- Obama recalled his first meeting with Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.), the venerable Democrat who was admired by virtually all of his colleagues for his thorough knowledge of the Constitution.
Obama had just been elected to the U.S. Senate and, waited for weeks to pay an expected courtesy call on the Senate's senior member. Obama showed deference to Byrd, listening to the senator's words of wisdom. He described them in his book as follows:
"He [Byrd] told me I would do well in the Senate but that I shouldn't be in too much of a rush --s o many Senators today had become fixated on the White House, not understanding that the Senate was supreme, the heart and soul of the Republic." Byrd added that there was not much he would do over. "Suddenly he paused and looked squarely into my eyes. `I only have one regret, you know. The foolishness of youth...' "
Obama continued: "We sat there for a moment, considering the gap of years and experience between us."
Obama failed to heed Byrd's warning about White House fever. Whether it was "the foolishness of youth" or his magnetic appeal for reform and change, Obama allowed himself to be swept to the top. The rest is history.
Woody Klein's "Out of the Woods" column appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.