The left was understandably aghast when, on the eve of last year's New Hampshire primary, a desperate Hillary Clinton seemed to downplay the accomplishments of Martin Luther King by noting that "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act. It took a president to get it done."
Writing in the next day's New York Times, an appalled Maureen Dowd asked: "Did any living Democrat ever imagine that any other living Democrat would try to win a presidential primary in New Hampshire by comparing herself to L.B.J.?"
This moment, supposedly, distilled the fundamental difference between the two Democratic front-runners. On the one hand was Mrs. Clinton, with her cold celebration (at the expense of a heroic civil rights leader) of one of the most cynically manipulative politicians in American history.
And then there was Mr. Obama, who eagerly encouraged comparisons between himself and King and who warned in his stump speech of Johnsonian politicians who "[tell] the American people what we think they want to hear instead of telling the American people what they need to hear." What an easy choice!
Funny, then, that Mr. Obama, as he now pushes a financial rescue package that could make or break the economy (and with it, his presidency), is resorting to the sort of trickery that would make L.B.J. smile – and that, no doubt, would have earned a harsh rebuke from the Mr. Obama of 2007 and 2008.
Johnson wasn't generally interested in public dialog or in challenging his fellow citizens to re-think their attitudes on one issue or another. Whatever it took, the public was to be kept as docile and disinterested as possible, thus freeing Johnson to pursue his agenda behind the scenes, with minimal outside influence.
Mr. Obama's approach, at least when it comes to financial rescue efforts, is really no different. Just consider his response last week, when outrage over the $165 million in taxpayer-endowed bonuses handed out by A.I.G. swelled to pitchforks-and-torches levels. Suddenly, millions of Americans, egged on by relentless media coverage, were furiously demanding answers and action from Washington, the kind of crazed mass response L.B.J. abhorred for its potential to disrupt his carefully laid backroom schemes.
Mr. Obama's reaction came straight from the L.B.J. playbook: say what needed to be said to quiet the unruly masses – but do little of substance to address their anger.
In various appearances last week – in Washington, at a California town hall meeting, on Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" – the president pronounced himself "outraged," "stunned" and "angry" at the bonus situation and repeatedly promised to pursue "every possible avenue" to compel A.I.G. to repay the bonus money. He also repeatedly disclaimed any responsibility for the situation, noting that "nobody here (in the White House) drafted those contracts" and specifically absolving his Treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, of any fault.
The problem is, Mr. Obama's actions as president tell a different story. For one thing, he and Mr. Geithner actually bear direct responsibility for the A.I.G. fiasco that has so riled the public. Back in February, Chris Dodd, the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, actually amended the stimulus bill to include a provision that banned the very retroactive bonuses that A.I.G. just doled out. At Wall Street's behest, Mr. Geithner (along with Mr. Obama's chief economic advisor, Larry Summers) the twisted Mr. Dodd's arm until he relented and changed his amendment to allow the retroactive bonuses.
And again this past weekend it was the Obama White House, using Constitutional concerns for cover, that helped kill the momentum in Congress for a plan to tax the A.I.G. bonuses at a 90 percent rate. Mr. Obama's administration has now used its muscle not once but twice on behalf of the A.I.G. bonus recipients – even as the president publicly pronounces himself intent on finding some way to recoup the money.
It seems clear that, privately, Mr. Obama decided long ago that it was best to live with the bonuses – that blocking them would endanger his longer-term goals of building confidence on Wall Street and attracting investors to partner with the government in purchasing toxic assets from banks. With Mr. Summers and Mr. Geithner, old Wall Street hands both, at his side, it's hardly surprising that Mr. Obama has accepted this line of thinking.
But he's also decided that he can't explain this sort of thinking to the American people. And this calculation is probably correct. Why get bogged down in a futile effort to convince a furious general public that it's best to put their rage aside and take a pragmatic view of the bonus payments? That would be politically suicidal; best to express hollow solidarity with the mob and hope it will move on to the next big outrage in a few days.
That this represents a marked shift from his campaign rhetoric really shouldn't surprise anyone. After all, promising voters that you'll tell them what they need to hear, and not what they want to hear, is really just another way of telling them what they want to hear.