The campaign for the United States presidential election of November 2012 is gathering pace with a degree of emerging clarity in the contest for the Republican nomination. There is more certainty on the Democratic side, in that Barack Obama is sure to run for a second term without opposition from inside his party.
Yet an event during a previous contest that might give him a certain pause is an address by his predecessor Lyndon B Johnson on 31 March 1968. LBJ then shocked the United States and the world by concluding with the announcement that he “would not permit the presidency to be involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year”; and accordingly,” I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term.”
LBJ’s professed motive was a desire to be able to devote his full attention to winning, or at least to extricating the United States from, a war that was consuming American lives, American resources and America’s reputation at an unsustainable pace. Some observers maintain that an additional factor at work was that he feared the possible humiliation of being denied the Democratic Party nomination by Robert Kennedy.
Whatever the reason, the certainly unintended consequence of his abdication was a fierce conflict within the Democratic Party punctuated by Kennedy’s assassination in mid-contest. The result was that Richard Nixon won the 1968 election for the the Republicans. Johnson had ended, not the war, but a generation of Democratic ascendancy.
There is not the remotest likelihood that Barack Obama will announce that he intends to withdraw from the contest in order to concentrate on winning, or ending, the war in Afghanistan. But there are uncomfortable similarities between LBJ’s position and the situation President Obama faces as he strives for re-election.
By early 1968, Johnson’s political worries were focused on Vietnam, but they also reflected the frustration of his ambitions to build a “great society” on the foundations of domestic reform. The tensions were evident as early as spring 1965. Even in the context of extraordinary domestic legislative achievements (civil rights, voting rights, Medicare for old people, Medicaid for the poor, aid to federal education, immigration reform and much besides) Johnson then found himself belaboured by simultaneous crises that threatened to undermine his presidency: Vietnam, where he made the crucial decisions to send American ground troops to South Vietnam and to bomb North Vietnam, and Selma, Alabama, the decisive moment of the civil-rights struggle.
Obama has not had to dash from crisis meetings on Pakistan to those on the budget as Johnson did between Saigon and Selma in March 1965 - at least, not yet. But he does have to wage battle on several fronts at once; and in summer 2011 they will require his personal attention and skilful management if his hopes of re-election are not to be derailed as Johnson’s were.
The two crises
The two fundamental problems for the president are the economy (including unemployment and the budget) and foreign affairs (especially Afghanistan and Pakistan).
The budget crisis is the more urgent and perhaps the more serious. Congress sets limits, progressively pushed upwards, to the level of United States government debt. The treasury has given its formal opinion that unless the limit is raised, the United States will default. The effect should not be exaggerated: the US would continue to be at the centre of the world’s monetary system. Yet it would be taken around the world as a financial cataclysm; the Nixon administration’s decision in 1971 to suspend the convertibility of dollars into gold would be trivial by comparison. By 25 August 2011 the US government is due to repay $25 billion; that would bust the debt limit.
In the past, even when the Bill Clinton administration was under attack from Newt Gingrich’s congressional Republicans, Congress has always in the end agreed to raise the debt limit. This time may be rather different. A Washington Post/ABC poll shows that more than a third of Republican and independents, and one-fifth of Democrats, are against raising the limit under any circumstances. More than half of all respondents, of every party, supported an agreement on the debt limit only when combined with steep reduction in government spending.
Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives’ budget committee and a professed disciple of Ayn Rand, has produced a “roadmap for the future” that is at once carefully argued, deeply pessimistic, moralistic and ideologically radical. He calls for deep cuts in healthcare programmes, pensions and other social entitlements, such as that that retired people should pay two-thirds of their healthcare costs (rather than one-quarter, as at present). All this is rooted in a philosophical argument that the present (modest) welfare state, largely established by Franklin D Roosevelt in the 1930s and LBJ in the 1960s, is contrary to America’s fundamental beliefs (and worse, “European”).
Ryan’s proposals are controversial even within his own party. But they are by no means without support. Indeed, Michael Tomasky reports in the New York Review of Books that among the new generation of conservatives taxation itself, in so far as it is redistributive in nature, is wrong. “The theology is rapidly becoming the conviction”, he writes, “that redistribution of a any sort is not merely unsound policy but is fundamentally immoral”.
The Republicans and the private healthcare and insurance industries have persuaded many Americans that President Obama’s healthcare reform - which passed with great difficulty - is both unaffordably expensive and destructive of the traditional relationship between patient and doctor. The Republicans are sworn to repeal them, and the president says he will veto repeal. A ferocious conflict over the budget in general, and healthcare in particular, is inevitable.
At the same time, sharp divisions are emerging on foreign policy. The speech by the outgoing defence secretary Robert M Gates about the reluctance of European governments to support Nato in conflicts outside Europe, reflects the way the American military (and many ordinary Americans) resent European failure to follow American judgments of what is to be done.
But Gates’s frustration also reflects a new reality: the United States, after spending so much on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, cannot in the present fiscal and economic climate afford limitless increases in military spending nor engagement on more than essential fronts. This enormous costs of these wars, combined with the exhaustion and lack of clarity over their objectives at home, is fuelling Republican scepticism over the US’s extended commitments.
Obama is faced with tough decisions over events in Syria and Yemen today, perhaps over Iran and even Saudi Arabia in the near future. He may be satisfied by the killing of Osama bin Laden, but he cannot expect that Pakistan will suddenly - if ever - become a loyal American ally.
He will not simply be able to send in the marines, as presidents from Roosevelt to Reagan could do with little concern for the consequences. It is becoming evident to the White House, as it was to the late Richard Holbrooke, that the president’s record in foreign policy will be decided, not by the “surge” in troop numbers in Afghanistan that made the reputation of General David H Petraeus, but by his success or failure in preventing the collapse of the state in Pakistan.
The Michelle moment
President Obama’s chances of re-election remain good, but they are not now impregnable. The opinion-poll “bounce” in his popularity resulting from the successful operation against Osama bin Laden in early May 2011 has disappeared: the president is again on 46% - not hopeless, but not comfortable either.
There is some hope as well as a touch of fear for him in the Republican Party’s turmoil. Every week brings new entries and new withdrawals or (as in the case of Newt Gingrich, a heavyweight contender with a glass jaw) decisive reversals. In this respect the showcase event featuring the seven current contenders on 13 June in New Hampshire was revealing. Mitt Romney confirmed his status as frontrunner, albeit handicapped by his Massachusetts healthcare reforms (suspiciously similar to Obama’s), his Mormon faith, and the widespread suspicion that there is a lot less there than meets the eye. (A certain generation of Americans recalls, when looking at Romney, the description by Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter Alice, no mean judge of political horseflesh, of Thomas Dewey: “the little man on the wedding cake”).
A notable absentee from the New Hampshire event was Sarah Palin, who since 2008 has been the focus of intense media speculation about her political ambitions. If indeed she fails to run for the nomination - and even if she does - an even more conservative (or at least outspoken) figure, the Minnesota congresswoman and Tea Party leader Michelle Bachmann, credited with a good performance in the debate, may assume her place in the spotlight and in the hearts of many Republicans.
More than the sum of years separates 1968 and 2012. But what connects these two years is that American politics are now in a state of bitter division over domestic and foreign policy. Barack Obama can still win. But there are going to be tears and damage, at home and abroad, before he ensures a second term.