Voters wanted President Obama to put on Lyndon Johnson’s tights and cape to break the logjam in Washington. They didn’t know how. They just imagined that all presidents had the same superpower, and it was just a matter of using it. Four years earlier, they had wanted the same effectiveness but lunged for a different solution. Barack Obama was only a one-term senator and had no experience actually running anything, but voters bought his argument that through the force of his personality and earnest bipartisanship, he could pick the Washington lock. They were wrong on both counts.
The myth of LBJ the superhero forgets that he was successful during a special time in American history. It also ignores that ultimately he was stymied, too. Plus, Obama had been elected as a kind of anti-LBJ: transparent, conciliatory and untarnished by Washington’s backroom culture. It was unrealistic to think that he could become a completely different person, just as unrealistic as it was to think four years earlier that someone who had spent so little time in Washington and had such disdain for the political process could transform the entire operation.
Unpacking the LBJ myth, what it says about what’s possible in the presidency, where Obama falls short, and what voters want could keep a reporter busy for weeks.
The next task would be to measure the crop of candidates against the requirements of the modern presidency. What in their background suggests they have any of the relevant skills? Have they ever managed a group larger than their campaign staff? Have they ever had to translate their ideas into action, build a coalition, and rally people to a goal? What do the people they have worked with most closely say about their temperament under pressure? When did they compromise in a meaningful way? When did they refuse to budge? How do they respond to failure? What mistakes have they made, and what did they learn from them?
As Hamby explains, asking these kinds of questions was one of the useful things about riding on the campaign bus covering a candidate day to day in the old days. You endured listening to the same stump speeches because between them you had time to talk to the candidate and his staff to take the measure of the candidate.
There is no precise formula for greatness, of course, but if nothing else, this exercise teases out who the candidates are and provides a framework for examining their candidacy. Candidates will hate these questions because they’re complicated, but they can hardly duck them on the grounds that they are frivolous. They are the core issue. If they don’t talk, their friends and colleagues will. If it turns out there aren’t really answers to any of these questions in a candidate’s background, it might tell us something about the weakness of our candidates.
John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent and author of “On Her Trail.”