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Now that Joe Biden has signed the most ambitious anti-poverty law since the Great Society, the analogies with Lyndon Johnson are coming fast. Two senate insiders turned running mates to younger, more charismatic, presidents. Two barnacled centrists who unexpectedly built, or rebuilt, the American welfare state.
Sounds great. Unfortunately, the analogy works for foreign policy too.
The key to understanding both presidencies is understanding the transformations that occurred—or did not occur—in the years before they commenced. By the time LBJ entered the White House—eight years after the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott—the civil rights movement had upended the national discussion about race. Some white Americans had grown more sympathetic to integration. Just as importantly, many white politicians had come to recognize that no amount of government brutality could force Black Americans into submission. The choice was between civil right laws and escalating conflict, which would undermine America’s effort to compete with the USSR in the decolonizing nations of Africa and Asia. Martin Luther King warned Johnson that if he did not pass a law guaranteeing voting rights, “you’ll see demonstrations on a level you have never seen before.” Fear of racial unrest also shaped LBJ’s decision, in 1964, to propose new programs for job training, early childhood education, and food stamps aimed at creating “a Great Society… where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled.” As Johnson declared after 1964 Harlem riots, “They’ve got no jobs. They can’t do anything. They’re just raising hell.”
The 1950s and early 1960s produced no similar progressive challenge to American foreign policy. To the contrary, the McCarthy era largely snuffed out public opposition to the Cold War. It also convinced Johnson that any Democrat who “lost” a country to communism—as Harry Truman allegedly had with China—would cripple his presidency. Johnson told the biographer Doris Kearns that he had nightmares in which, “I would see myself tied to the ground in the middle of a long, open space. In the distance, I could hear the voices of thousands of people. They were all shouting at me and running toward me: ‘Coward! Traitor! Weakling.’” He wasn’t afraid merely of Republicans. He told Kearns that if he pulled the US out of Vietnam, “there would be Robert Kennedy out in front leading the fight against me, telling everyone that I had betrayed John Kennedy’s commitment to South Vietnam.”
By 1968, that had changed. Robert Kennedy had turned against the war; the dovish Eugene McCarthy was challenging Johnson in the Democratic primary. But in 1964 and 1965, when Johnson made critical decisions to escalate in Vietnam, the political climate on domestic and foreign policy were radically different. On domestic policy, Johnson faced pressure from his left. On foreign policy, the pressure came largely from his right.
The same is true for Biden today. Over the last decade, populist movements like Occupy and populist politicians like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have pushed the Democratic Party substantially to the left on economics. In 2009, Barack Obama chose Tim Geithner, a budget hawk with a background on Wall Street, as his Treasury Secretary. In today’s Democratic Party, figures like Geithner have become virtual pariahs. In addition, the Black Lives Matter movement has reshaped the party’s agenda on criminal justice. Not only couldn’t Biden appoint Geithner today, he likely couldn’t appoint Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, because of Emanuel’s handling of a controversial police shooting while he was mayor of Chicago.
On foreign policy there has been no similar, broad-based, progressive transformation. Yes, grassroots activism has turned key Democrats in Congress against the war in Yemen. And, yes, activists have elevated climate change as a foreign policy priority. But on most foreign policy issues—China, Russia, Iran, Israel-Palestine, Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea—Biden faces more political pressure from his right than his left. As in Johnson’s time, that’s true even inside the Democratic Party. Biden’s insistence that Iran return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal before the US lifts any sanctions reportedly reflects an effort to assuage Robert Menendez, the AIPAC-aligned Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee. Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has long advocated a hawkish line on China. And congressional Democrats spent the last four years slamming Donald Trump for not supporting sufficiently harsh sanctions against Russia and North Korea. There are exceptions: congressional Democrats like Bernie Sanders, Ro Khanna and Ilhan Omar, who tweak Biden for not more aggressively pursuing diplomacy with Iran and for ignoring Palestinian rights. But they are almost as easily ignored as the doves who questioned America’s escalation in Vietnam in 1964 and 1965.
You can see the difference between domestic and foreign policy when it comes to presidential appointments. It would be politically costly for Biden to appoint a Goldman Sachs partner to a top Treasury Department job. But he can fill the upper ranks of the Pentagon with appointees who have either served on the boards of defense contractors or worked at think tanks that are heavily funded by them, and provoke minimal opposition even inside his own party. On domestic policy, progressives don’t just sit at the table, they sometimes sit at its head. On foreign policy, they’re largely out in the hall.
Does this mean Biden is headed for another Vietnam? Probably not. But his hawkish orientation poses dangers. Having been burned by Trump, Iran’s leaders are warier of a nuclear deal with the US than they were in 2015. If Biden doesn’t ease sanctions on Tehran soon, an agreement may not materialize before Iran holds elections this summer. And if hawks win those elections, as appears likely, diplomacy could collapse, which would allow Iran to move ever-closer to the capacity to build a bomb and revive talk of an Israeli strike, even as Iranian proxies take shots at US forces in Iraq. Similarly, if the US continues to abandon the historic constraints on its relationship with Taiwan, and the Biden administration does not create an intensive dialogue aimed at reassuring Beijing that Taipei will not declare independence, China could invade (or take some menacing action short of all-out war).
Johnson’s advisors—men like McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow and Robert McNamara—were not crude ideological extremists. They were not the 1960s equivalent of John Bolton, Mike Pompeo or Michael Flynn. They were highly credentialed centrists bound by a bipartisan, largely uncontroversial, cold war mindset. And in the critical early years of Johnson’s presidency, progressives lacked the power to make them, or Johnson himself, reconsider assumptions that ultimately led to disaster. Today, progressives lack the power to make Biden’s highly credentialed centrists reconsider their hawkish assumptions as well.
For progressives, the stimulus bill is a happy moment, for which Biden deserves great credit. But it’s the other part of the LBJ analogy I worry about.