How to measure a president: Why a successful president must understand his political moment.

How To Measure for a President

Why We Want Presidents Like LBJ

How To Measure for a President

Why We Want Presidents Like LBJ
Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 26 2012 2:00 PM

How To Measure for a President


Ethics and honesty are nice. But if a president is going to succeed, he must understand his moment.

President Lyndon Johnson with Senator Richard Russell at the White House, December 7, 1963, Washington, DC.
President Lyndon Johnson with Sen. Richard Russell at the White House on Dec. 7, 1963

Photo by Yoichi Okamoto/Lyndon Baines Johnson Library.

In Gore Vidal's movie The Best Man, presidential candidate William Russell, played by Henry Fonda, faces a dilemma. He’s going to lose the race unless he sacrifices his principles and smears his opponent, Joe Cantwell. The incumbent president lectures the timid Russell about the relationship between campaigning and governing:

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is a co-anchor of CBS This Morning, co-host of the Slate Political Gabfest, host of the Whistlestop podcast, and author of Whistlestop and On Her Trail.

Power is not a toy we give to good children. It is a weapon. And the strong man takes it and uses it. If you don't go down there and beat Joe Cantwell to the floor with this very dirty stick, then you've got no business in the big league. Because if you don't fight, the job is not for you. And it never will be.

That’s not what Americans say they want in a president. When Gallup asked voters what they hoped for in a chief executive, they said honesty, consistency, and good morals. They put those qualities above experience and sound judgment. The darker political arts—deception, flip-flopping, fakery, hypocrisy, and acting out of ambition rather than the public good—weren’t on the list. If any of those labels ever stick to the candidate, they can disqualify him before he reaches Des Moines.

Voters claim to want someone like our second president. “Always vote for principle,” John Adams said, “though you may vote alone … you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost." In a recent interview for 60 Minutes, Mitt Romney embraced the example Adams set when asked what presidential history has taught him. “We saw in [Adams] an individual who was less concerned about public opinion than he was about doing what he thought was right for the country,” Romney said. It’s a wonderful sentiment, but a politician following the “Adams model” will surely end up with plenty of time for sweet reflection—which is why Romney has probably found it necessary to change his public positions so often. Sweet reflection is nice—but not yet.

Elections confer bulky powers on a president—the ability to make war and treaties and nominate Supreme Court justices. To gain power in the day-to-day, a president must grab it and husband it. To do this, a president must occasionally let people believe things that they know will never be true. He must sometimes embrace what he once denounced. The job requires almost constant artifice. Even when a president shows his genuine self, it is usually based on a meeting where that “authenticity” was approved and sharpened in advance. This is why Ronald Reagan asked, "How can a president not be an actor?”


Of course, if you want to win the office, you can't ever show that you are fluent in backstabbing and hypocrisy. So our presidential candidates run as outsiders, unsullied by having a phone number in the 202 area code. Herman Cain ignited a crowd by just saying, "I'm not a politician." When you have had the misfortune of serving in Congress—as John McCain and Barack Obama did—you portray yourself as a maverick. “I’m an outsider trapped on the inside. But with a single election you can set me free!”

This is distracting and unproductive. Pretending that you are not political is itself a highly political act. Voters need to stop rewarding the charade. Let’s not deny the primacy of politics. We are underexamining whether they can actually perform the messy but necessary parts of the job. This may have happened with Obama. In 2008, voters thought he was a great politician. What if his only political skills are the ones that got him elected—appealing to people's romantic notion of the presidency—and have nothing to do with what it takes to actually do the job? 

What voters should be prospecting for is whether a candidate has political instincts. Can he read the landscape? Does he have a theory for how to gain political power? Does he know how to use it? What is his understanding of the public’s tolerance for change? Does he enjoy the relentless give-and-take required to get things done? Has he ever convinced someone who disagreed with him of anything?

A candidate may have great ideas, management skill, and a serene temperament, but that won't help much if he can't swim in these rough currents.


How much is politically possible in Washington today? Where are the openings for action and compromise, and why?

If politics is the art of the possible, as Otto von Bismarck said, how does a president know what's possible? The conditions are not the same for every president. Each faces a different "political time"—a set of political challenges unique to his moment in history—as political scientist Stephen Skowronek explains in his wonderful book The Politics Presidents Make. Voters are either hoping for change or wary of it; the opposition is either in a fighting mood or in shambles; and the priorities a candidate championed on the campaign trail are either in sync with the coalitions in Congress or a pipedream.*

Some presidential proposals are already popular with the public and require little more than a push from the chief executive. Other programs may be possible if a president unlocks dormant public support. Some ideas will never get traction, no matter how much a president pushes. A president must recognize the limitations and opportunities of the political times he inhabits. 

We are stuck in this debate at this very moment. Republicans—like all parties looking at the White House from the outside—argue that the president can redirect the country’s course in a snap. Romney is promising an economic turnaround almost immediately after he is elected. That was the mood music behind the GOP’s convention in Tampa, Fla. President Obama, who ran in 2008 promising the same kind of action-hero presidency, is much more realistic now. He’s so realistic, talking about the limitations of changing Washington from the inside, that Republicans are saying he’s already given up.


The idea of a limited presidency is at odds with the myth of the office. One of the most quoted presidential aphorisms is from Woodrow Wilson, who wrote that a president "is at liberty, both in law and conscience, to be as big a man as he can." Wilson wrote that line, however, before he ever set foot in the Oval Office. Once he’d actually started serving, he quickly learned about the limits of his power. "A little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own … have rendered the great Government of the United States helpless and contemptible," he said when stymied by members of the Senate. Lyndon Johnson had a knack for minting earthy descriptions of presidential powerlessness. “The office is kinda like the little country boy found the hoochie-koochie show at the carnival,” said the 36th president. “Once he’d paid his dime and got inside the tent, ‘It ain’t exactly as it was advertised.’ ”

If a president misreads his moment, it can throw his presidency off course. Franklin Roosevelt's attempt to pack the court is perhaps the most famous example of a serious political blunder. But many trip right out of the gate. Bill Clinton pushed to allow gays to serve in the military at the beginning of his first term, ending his political honeymoon about as soon as it started. In the first months of George W. Bush's presidency, either due to a lack of attention or respect, Vermont Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords abandoned the Republican Party, handing control of the Senate to the Democrats. Obama continued to back the former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle for a Cabinet post despite the controversy over his unpaid taxes. Later Obama admitted he was blind to the conflict between his promise to run a White House with no special-interest influence and the loophole he was creating for his friend Daschle.

A president who sees the possibilities of the moment can rack up achievements that seemed foreclosed. According to Robert Caro’s account in The Path to Power, Johnson knew instinctively after John F. Kennedy’s assassination that he could use the slain president’s memory to pile up successes in Congress. Caro quotes Johnson discussing the mechanics of his strategy: “I had to take the dead man’s program and turn it into a martyr’s cause.” When Johnson addressed Congress days after Kennedy’s death, he did just that: “[No] eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.”

Voters need to appreciate these currents almost as much as presidents in order to accurately assess a president's political performance or a challenger’s promises. How steep was the opposition that a president faced? How boxed in was his agenda by the unexpected emergencies of the day? Did these fire alarms increase his political capital or drain it? Is the challenger offering pie-in-the-sky promises? Will his proposals face public fatigue, or are people hungry for sweeping change?  


Looking at a presidency this way has one other advantage: Moments of greatness can come into full view. You can identify those instances when a president faced great obstacles and plowed ahead despite the high political price he would pay. That’s the only way to describe Johnson's decision on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, even though he knew it would permanently cost his party support in the South. When George H.W. Bush supported a budget deal in 1990 that broke with his “no new taxes” pledge, it may have cost him his re-election.

What conditions would require you to be as successful as Reagan and FDR?

One of the great questions of the Obama presidency is whether he understood his political time. He promised to transform politics by being above it. Was this naïve?

Early in his term, Time magazine depicted Obama on the cover looking like FDR. He should have denounced it as grossly unfair. The comparison set expectations he could never meet and which haunt him as he tries to get re-elected as a man who has not lived up to the hagiography.


When FDR came into office, the economic crisis had been dragging on for years. That meant his opponents had been fully discredited. The public had been suffering long enough and were hungry for bold action. Obama didn't enjoy any of these conditions. The recession still felt fresh. Though Bush’s approval ratings were lousy, conservative ideas were hardly out of fashion. Indeed, during the 2008 campaign, Obama referred favorably to Reagan's transformative politics. Without a discredited GOP, Obama was never going to easily build new coalitions.

Michael 01 Evans.jpg
From left, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Tip O'Neill Jr. Reagan showed that he was willing to work with Democrats like O'Neill when necessary.

Photo by Zuma Press/Newscom.

Obama didn't have an issues-based movement behind him of the kind Reagan and FDR had when they were elected. There was no conservative tax revolt or labor movement to propel his domestic policies. Anti-war supporters helped elect Obama, but that didn't give him a sustained source of energy once in office. With a movement behind you, supporters tolerate most political means employed to reach the desired ends. But Obama was the movement. The means and the ends got muddled. When he had to take emergency measures—buying votes with back-room deals, negotiating in secret, compromising on Republican ideas—he was immediately in conflict with the "new kind of politics" he had promised.

Perhaps Obama never should have promised to "fundamentally transform the United States of America.” It set the expectations too high. The political system doesn’t move that fast. (In retrospect, it sounds like a promise to harness the energy of unicorns.) Recognizing the limitations such grand promises would put on governing would have represented a sophisticated understanding of his political moment. Maybe it never occurred to him that by running as a person who would be above politics he was inadvertently constricting his ability to do the job once in office? Of course, had Obama not successfully sold the idea that he was a rare figure who could unify the nation, he may never have won the election.

An alternative view is that Obama always knew that his post-partisan posture was a gambit. He knew what the politics of the office required, but by positioning himself as a transcendent figure he sought to create a political currency that he could then use in the morass of Washington.

Whichever view you take, we know that the president failed the political test he set for himself. His post-partisan age never materialized. He was not able to convince Republicans to join his health care push. He predicted it would help Democrats in his party in the 2010 elections. It did the opposite. He faced what he called a "shellacking." In the period that followed, he was weakened politically. He was unable to reach a long-term budget deal and wound up agreeing to an extension of the Bush tax cuts he had long campaigned against. He now cites this failure as the greatest disappointment of his first term.

The challenge for those who argue that Obama was naïve is to explain the obviously political moves he took. On his first big fight over the stimulus plan, Obama tried a variety of gambits, buying off Republican votes, pressuring members of his own side, and in the end going back on a variety of promises about cooperation and transparency that he had made in the campaign in order to get things done.

As Michael Grunwald argues in his book The New New Deal, Obama's stimulus is filled with pet projects the president squeezed in under the cloak of crisis. He started the transition to a low-carbon economy, pumping money into the largest wind farm, America’s first refineries to process biofuels, and half a dozen of the world’s largest solar arrays. He also slipped in his education agenda to promote data-driven reforms of public schools.

Obama heeded his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel’s advice to “never let a crisis go to waste” and used the political opening offered to him by events to do the things he wanted. Even when Obama backed down to Republicans on the Bush tax cuts in the waning days of 2010, he got an extension of unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut in return. As David Corn argues in Showdown, Obama was able to sneak in $238 billion in stimulus spending and another $200 billion in other economic priorities—including tax credits for the working poor, renewable energy, and education—by yielding on the issue of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. It was classic political horse trading.

Of course, not everyone was impressed. Sean Wilentz argues that if Obama was made of tougher stuff, he and his congressional colleagues would have altered the Senate filibuster rules when they had a 60-seat majority there, removing an obstacle that had thwarted so many of his legislative priorities. Perhaps, but the president would have had to pull off this controversial move while trying to sell the public on his auto bailout, his stimulus plan, and health care reform. Afghanistan and Iraq were presenting challenges, too. He would have faced opposition from Democratic senators—the late Sen. Robert Byrd would have objected strenuously—which would have eaten up valuable political capital as he wrestled in his own locker room. Having run on openness, transparency, and fair dealing, such a maneuver would have effectively dealt away the goodwill that had elected him president. Part of that goodwill may very well be what sustains him today, despite people's feelings about his lousy stewardship of the economy.

What has been your greatest negotiating success, and why?

Presidents rarely get their way in a negotiation because of their sharp reasoning, though as historian Richard Neustadt writes, it is common for each president to think that he needs “no power other than the logic of his argument.” It takes a lot more than logic. The good ones have a talent for intimidation, flattery, and a willingness to disappoint their friends. At this point, we have to let LBJ shamble onto the stage.

Johnson is considered the master at working his will on other lawmakers, but he must be understood in his political time in order to see what qualities were unique to the man and the moment and which ones might be available to a president today.

Some of Johnson's accomplishments, like the Civil Rights Act, were helped along by the momentum of being part of Kennedy's legacy. Though Johnson helped pass Medicare, sweeping education reform, and a host of other Great Society programs, even his political powers were limited. By the end of his term, the weight of the Vietnam War made him virtually impotent. 

Johnson also had unique experience, having served 24 years in Congress. (It's easier to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when you helped pass the one in 1957.) Obama could never match his skill simply by putting on the presidential cuff links.

Still, Johnson had a love of politics that Obama and Romney lack. He approached other politicians like they were prey. He mixed psychoanalysis, cunning, and determination. “He had almost no hobby,” said Larry Temple, special counsel to President Johnson. “His avocation and his vocation were the same: government and politics.”

“I never trust a man unless I've got his pecker in my pocket,” was Johnson’s crudest articulation of political power. The famous picture of Johnson nearly rubbing chins with Rhode Island Sen. Theodore Green has solidified his reputation for intimidation. In December 1963 he fought conservatives in Congress over a bill regulating grain exports to the Soviet Union that he saw as a threat to his power in foreign affairs. He kept Congress in session until Christmas Eve to show them he had the power to do so and built a devastating majority against the conservatives. “He kept telephoning senator after senator, cajoling, bullying, threatening, charming, long after he had the majority, to make the vote overwhelming enough to ensure the lesson was clear,” writes Caro.

But Johnson wasn’t just about a finger to the breast plate. He was a flatterer. "You have to court members of Congress as much as your wife," Johnson would say. That didn't mean just calling members on the phone. It meant studying their needs, their fears, knowing how to flatter them, excite them, or buy them off. At his desk he kept a list of important members of Congress. Next to each name was a small annotation with a pet project they needed or note about what their weak spots were.

As a young politician, Johnson would literally sit at the knee of those he sought to ingratiate himself to. Once in power, he still buttered up those he needed. Once when walking out of the Oval Office with an executive from a steel company, Johnson told him, “It takes a powerful man to convince the president of the United States.” He used that same trick with Sen. Harry Byrd. “Now you can tell your friends that you forced the president of the United States to reduce the budget before you let him have his tax cut,” he told the powerful senator from Virginia. In a conversation with Sen. Albert Gore, he cooed: "There's not anybody I'm more interested in than myself and you. … Any little thing that we can do here to add to your stature, we sure want to do it." Presidential historian Fred Greenstein writes that Johnson “had an unerring sense of the preoccupations of his colleagues and a genius for linking the provisions of proposed laws to the interests of sufficient numbers of legislators to enact them.”

Johnson was successful because he liked to be in the company of politicians. All successful presidents have some share of this love for their own kind. Harry Truman sought out local pols when he hit the road, both to enjoy their company and to get a quick read of the place he was visiting. It's clear that Obama—whose personality is far more insular and inward—doesn’t share that appetite, even for those in his own party. Sen. Chuck Schumer has told colleagues this is because Obama never really had to “climb the greasy poll” of politics to succeed. Obama disdains artifice of any kind, as he told Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair. “There are some things about being president that I still have difficulty doing,” Obama said. “For example, faking emotion … I’m at my best when I believe what I am saying.” Obama wouldn’t be able to hold down his soup if he had to flatter Eric Cantor.

Other politicians notice this. “I think one of the problems with the White House is that it’s been too set apart. It’s been too Chicago-centric, and it needs to get out,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein told the Hill newspaper. “Clinton didn’t just talk to four leaders, he picked up the phone and he kind of said, ‘I really need your vote on this.’ ” Emanuel tells the story of being woken in the middle of the night by Clinton who was asking for another list of names to lobby for votes on his crime bill. 

Romney shares Obama's aloof temperament. He was forced to overcome it a little more than Obama because, as the governor of Massachusetts, Romney needed the Democrats in the legislature to get anything done. But it was a synthetic interaction. In Texas, George W. Bush developed a lifelong friendship with his Democratic Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. Romney did not make those kinds of connections. He had little interest in the lawmakers themselves or the cosseting that was required to move legislation.

Massachusetts Democrats found his corporate style off-putting. In Michael Kranish and Scott Helman’s The Real Romney, the authors recount Romney’s first meeting with lawmakers. “My usual approach has been to set the strategic vision for the enterprise and then work with executive vice presidents to implement that strategy,” Romney said. He seemed to be suggesting state lawmakers worked for him. “My take on it was, here is a person who is well-intentioned and competent, but unclear on the basic concept,” Andrea F. Nuciforo, Jr., then a state senator from western Massachusetts, told the authors.

When asked how he is going to get anything done in Washington, Romney points to his work with Democrats in Massachusetts. But his crowning achievement, health care reform, illustrates how difficult it will be for him to match that record as president. Romney worked with Democrats to impose an individual mandate without much ideological opposition from his own party. He’ll have less room to move in Washington where conservatives are on guard for his first break with orthodoxy. To reach a budget deal in Massachusetts, Romney agreed to raise at least $331 million in new revenue through increased fees for permits, licenses, and services—about a 45 percent jump. He’s already signed a pledge never to do such a thing as president. 

When did you disappoint an ally to make progress?

Romney does come to Washington with perhaps an unmatched ability to refashion himself and his positions. When he charts a new course, he proceeds with righteousness and resolve, as if the new path was his original conviction, and with no concern for the contradictions that are obvious to everyone else.

Of course, this malleability is a sin for most voters. It's what they hate about Washington because it usually means that politicians are selling out their constituents for political gain. But presidents know that to accomplish something they have to finesse their previous convictions. Abraham Lincoln changed his mind on slavery, FDR flipped on a balanced budget and neutrality, George H.W. Bush raised taxes, and Obama supported a health care individual mandate.

Mitt Romney puts on a apron as Linda Hundt, owner of Sweetie-licious Bakery Café.
Mitt Romney puts on a apron as Linda Hundt, owner of Sweetie-licious Bakery Café, prepares to help him make a pie shell at her store in June in DeWitt, Mich.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

Romney is malleable. This we know. But will he be able to triangulate his positions in a way that doesn’t anger his base? He must if he's going to come to an agreement with Democrats. Knowing how to deceive your own backers—making them think you agree with them while giving their opponents the same impression—is sometimes required to get a deal. In his book about FDR, Jonathan Alter describes how the president’s “affable impenetrability” vexed Sen. Huey Long. “When I talk to him, he says, ‘Fine! Fine! Fine!’ ” Long said. “But [Sen.] Joe Robinson goes to see him the next day and he says, ‘Fine! Fine! Fine!’ Maybe he says, ‘Fine!’ to everybody.” 

Liberal lawmakers complain that President Obama is a little too good at this. They point to Obama’s feigned interest in the public option during the health care debate, the deal he cut with Republican senators to extend the Bush tax cuts in 2010, and his willingness to agree to Medicare cuts as a part of a grand budget bargain in the summer of 2011. Obama appeared to be telling his Democratic allies he would protect entitlements while telling Republican negotiators he would raise the retirement age and subject benefits to a means test.

However, agreements with Democrats may not be what Romney wants in office. "The purpose of negotiation is to get agreement," Reagan said, but the definition of what agreement means is up for grabs for each president. Does it mean accommodating the other side's concerns, or is a president supposed to stand his ground until the other side caves? This is an abstract debate that's hard to have until actual legislation is on the table, but in the current political climate, agreements based on Isaiah's call "come now, let us reason together" seem quaint. A new Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation study shows that the political parties are as polarized and far apart as ever

The new level of partisanship suggests that LBJ’s skills might not be that useful for the modern president. Who would a President Romney or Obama cajole, sweet talk, or strong arm? It’s true that Johnson faced a recalcitrant, conservative bloc of Southern Democrats and Midwesterners. But he could run around them by creating his own mix of liberal Democrats and liberal Republicans. Today’s presidents can’t mix and match their own coalitions so easily.

How much more could Obama have achieved if he had a larger share of Johnson's ability to measure other politicians? Maybe he could have convinced Sen. Joe Lieberman to support a few more ventures. He might have pushed the three Republican senators to agree to make the Recovery Act larger than $800 billion. He could have convinced Sen. Ben Nelson to vote for health care by giving Nebraska 100 percent federal funding of the Medicaid expansion indefinitely into the future. Oh wait, he did that. Very LBJ of him, but it created such a political stink he had to withdraw the offer. Howls emerged from those who said Obama was acting like a greasy politician, not the change agent he promised to be. Another president might have been able pull it off, but not Obama. The argument he presented for why he should be president foreclosed some of the deals he could cut as president.

Romney is probably misjudging his political moment in a different way. Romney has promised that upon taking office he will repeal Obamacare, replace it with his own version, transform Medicare from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan, and reduce the budget by $500 billion. Before he does that, he must reallocate the $1 trillion in deficit reduction that is scheduled to take place across the board as a result of the failed 2011 debt limit talks and make good on his promise to make the Bush tax cuts permanent. 

That's a heavy load. Even if Republicans miraculously control both houses of Congress, the majorities will be slim. Romney won’t have anything approaching a clear mandate to make those sweeping changes. In this reality, one of several things might happen: He’ll only get some of what he wants, his attempt to avoid the fiscal cliff while retaining ideological commitments on spending reductions and tax cuts will end in disaster, or a crisis atmosphere—surrounding a possible downgrade of the U.S. credit rating or a collapse in the bond market—will push through legislation that no one really understands. At best, Romney will be able to include some pet projects in the hurly burly just as Obama did with his 2009 stimulus bill.

Romney's skill at quickly analyzing complex systems, plotting corrective action, and implementing a plan gives him skills no other president has had coming in to office. But, as Rick Santorum pointed out in the primaries, his experience as a businessman will be of limited use. "The experience Gov. Romney keeps touting out there is not the experience you need to be president," he said. "A CEO directs people to do what the CEO thinks is right to do, and those people work in his chain of command. Senators and congressmen don't work for the president. You've got to work with people, not order people."

Romney admits he doesn’t really know how Washington works. That's why he picked Paul Ryan, he says. But there is no evidence in Ryan's background that he knows how to make a bipartisan deal. He has passed only two pieces of legislation, one naming a post office and another related to hunting arrows. It’s a thin resume, but it wouldn’t matter even if Ryan had Joe Biden’s three decades worth of experience. Obama and Romney should know that political instincts cannot be outsourced.


Correction, Sept. 26, 2012: This article originally misspelled the last name of Otto von Bismarck. (Return to the corrected sentence.)