By Morton Keller
As President Obama's administration evolved and a midterm rebuke loomed, certain historical analogies came to the fore. Would he swing to the center, like Bill Clinton? Or would he hunker down truculently, like Jimmy Carter?
Now that the election is over, it may be helpful to see Obama's situation in a different historical context. Two sequences in particular come to mind: the 1934-36 cycle that heralded the flowering of the New Deal and the Roosevelt coalition, and the 1964-66 cycle that marked the decline of Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society.
Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933 with overwhelming, Depression-fed congressional margins, which gave Democrats an advantage of 196 seats in the House and 23 in the Senate. Two years later, his party shattered precedent by gaining an additional nine seats in the House and 10 in the Senate. The tide of New Deal legislation, and of FDR's popularity, was in full flow, setting the stage for his unprecedented landslide reelection in 1936.
LBJ's Great Society is commonly seen as a direct descendant of FDR's New Deal. But the political story of the 1960s, and the policy story behind it, is in fact very different.
LBJ's 1965 congressional majorities - with an advantage of 155 seats in the House and 36 in the Senate - were comparable to FDR's in 1933. But in the 1966 midterm elections, those majorities were carved back, by 48 seats in the House and four in the Senate. And while 1934 pointed to FDR's 1936 triumph, the 1966 election foreshadowed Richard Nixon's 1968 win and his 1972 rout of McGovern.
What happened to turn LBJ's 1964 triumph into the rejections of 1966 and subsequent years? Vietnam, most obviously - but also a backlash against the Great Society.
In its ugliest form, this domestic reaction took aim at the civil rights revolution, through George Wallace's 1968 candidacy and Nixon's Southern strategy. But it also included a more general protest against government expansion at home and war abroad. The gulf that separates the New Deal from the Great Society was embodied by two iconic mayors of New York City: the universally popular Fiorello LaGuardia, in the 1930s, and the deeply divisive John V. Lindsay, in the 1960s.
The New Deal and World War II integrated new immigrants and their children, and poverty-stricken farmers and workers, into the American mainstream: one out of many. The War on Poverty, quotas and affirmative action, black nationalism, Vietnam, and the counterculture fed separateness and differentiation: many out of one.
Like FDR and LBJ, Barack Obama was swept into office on a tide of public favor and popular distrust of the GOP. But the popular mood of 2010 echoes 1966 far more than it does 1934. The majority view is not that Obama has impressively confronted the nation's problems, à la FDR, but that, like LBJ, he has stretched his electoral remit into suspect and unpopular policy realms.
The tea-party movement - not Obama's 2008 coalition of minorities, the young, independents, and liberals - appears to be the most consequential development in American politics today. It's as if the conservative, anti-New Deal American Liberty League - not the FDR-New Deal coalition - had emerged as the primary political legatee of the 1930s.
Can Obama reshape his political destiny in the next couple of years? The political capacity of a president is important; see Carter vs. Clinton. But even more so are the larger, external conditions that define the nation's political life.
FDR's personal qualities satisfied the national desire, in a time of depression and threats abroad, for strong, self-confident leadership - for a benign prince. But LBJ's great political skills availed him little in a very different time, when the national mood rejected strong leadership.
Obama faces a nation likely to be increasingly skeptical of assertive government at home and abroad. Will he want to adjust his presidential persona to respond to that? Can he do so? Character may affect the shape of destiny, but only rarely can it redirect the course of events.