From Lincoln to LBJ to Frank Underwood

Metaphors for the Obama presidency have gone from heroic to homicidal.


White House

If you want to trace the downward trajectory of the dreams that liberals pinned on the enigmatic figure of Barack Obama, look no further than the presidential histories and political dramas through which they have filtered their understanding of his meteoric rise and drip-by-drip fall in popularity.

When the then-candidate for U.S. Senate burst on the national political stage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he put his historical analogy of choice right there in the opening paragraph: "On behalf of the great state of Illinois, crossroads of a nation, land of Lincoln, let me express my deep gratitude for the privilege of addressing this convention," he said. "Tonight is a particular honor for me because, let's face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely."

Yes, Barack Obama was going to be the modern embodiment of Abraham Lincoln himself, fulfilling the long-delayed promise of America's racial reconciliation, in part by using his unusual-for-politics parentage as a springboard for uniting, not dividing. "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there is the United States of America," Obama said, in the speech's most celebrated passage. "There is not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America."

The address, written in Lincoln's hometown of Springfield, Illinois (the same place where Obama would later announce his candidacy for the White House), was an instant sensation. "I have to tell you, [there's] a little chill in my legs right now," MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews said. "That is an amazing moment in history right there. I have seen the first black president."

The ensuing presidency, and the last six years of American political life, have been so desultory that it's almost hard to remember how ubiquitous the now-laughable Lincoln comparison once was. Take this Washington Post analysis after the 2008 election: "He was a boy with a distant father, raised in a family of modest means. He had a curious intellect, devouring history and memorizing passages from Shakespeare. He became a lawyer and settled in Illinois, where he was elected to the state legislature. With relatively little political experience, he decided to run for president. Few believed he stood a chance of winning a primary campaign against the party's heir apparent, a senator from New York. But the gangly, bookish Illinoisan galvanized millions across a country in crisis with his soaring rhetoric, speaking in big strokes about transcending partisan politics and creating America as it ought to be. He rose from obscurity to clinch his party's nomination and the presidency. Sound familiar?"

The ur-text of Lincolnesque projection onto Obama was Doris Kearns Goodwin's award-winning 2005 bestseller Team of Rivals, later converted into the 2012 Steven Spielberg film Lincoln. These biographies focused on how a noble lawyer-president co-opted his political competitors, then rallied them with a mix of backroom cajoling and high rhetoric to undo the historic evil of slavery. As Washington Post reviewer Allen C. Guelzo put it, Team of Rivals was a "messianic drama" in which "Lincoln must increase and the others must decrease," for the greater good.

Obama basked in the comparison, roping Goodwin in for consultation, naming Team of Rivals the one book he'd bring to a desert island, and appointing former rivals Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton to important positions. Big things were sure to come.

Or not. In November 2013, Politico reported that Obama's ballyhooed team of rivals meets "only rarely, for what by most accounts are not much more than ritualistic team-building exercises" aimed at advancing the president's political needs. "Never has the job of Cabinet secretary seemed smaller," reporter Glenn Thrush found. "The staffers who rule Obama's West Wing often treat his Cabinet as a nuisance: At the top of the pecking order are the celebrity power players, like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to be warily managed; at the bottom, what they see as a bunch of well-intentioned political naifs only a lip-slip away from derailing the president's agenda."

Did those who invested heavily in the Lincoln metaphor examine their own gullibility in the face of directly contrary evidence? Hardly. Goodwin, one of the few to be challenged on it (due to the theatrical release of Lincoln), suggested in a November 2012 Washington Post interview that Obama fell short because "maybe he waited too long to give his health-care speech before the joint session of Congress." Uh-huh. In the land of presidential projection, every unfulfilled dream is only one knockout speech away. (Indeed Goodwin's next book, The Bully Pulpit, glorified the Oval Office's most notorious windbag, Theodore Roosevelt.)

By this point in Obama's presidency, the historical analogy of choice has descended from the loft of Lincoln to the git-'er-done gutter of LBJ. The fourth installment of Robert Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson series arrived in 2012, finally bringing the master biographer's subject into the White House, where in 1964 he would arm-twist Congress into passing a series of landmark civil rights and social welfare bills. All the Way, a Tony Award-winning play about LBJ's first year in office that draws heavily from Caro, made its Broadway debut this year with Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston in the lead. Critics and pundits got the message.

"Obama Could Stand to Be a Little More Like LBJ," ran the headline of a Keli Goff piece in The Root. "If the president occasionally tried giving rivals Lyndon Johnson's 'treatment,' maybe he'd get more done," the subtitle elaborated. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne hailed "the LBJ revival" as a sign that a more muscular progressivism was ready to find "realistic ways of creating a better world."

But the historical LBJ and his by-any-means-necessary style brought us a War on Poverty that bulldozed people's rights without measurably improving their lot and a Vietnam War escalation that stands as one of the single greatest policy follies in U.S. history. His temperament may have given us the Civil Rights Act, but it also gave us the unseemly spectacle of a paranoid president enlisting the FBI and a Supreme Court justice to dig up dirt on actor George Hamilton just for having the temerity to fancy LBJ's daughter.

Where the Lincolnphiles suffered from an over-fondness of rhetoric, the knock-a-few-heads-together crowd labors under a similarly unrealistic notion of what could be accomplished if you just locked warring political tribes in a room. That approach fails to take into account the many awful examples of bipartisan deal making, from Medicare Part D to the stimulus packages of 2008-09. Even worse, it reduces the dull, protracted realities of real-world policy making to a drama tidy enough to fit within the length of a major motion picture or Broadway show.

More troubling even than the rehabilitation of a man Democrats once couldn't wait to hound out of office is the rising fondness for an even more ruthless commander in chief: Frank Underwood, our cover boy this month, the fictional anti-hero of Netflix's critically acclaimed Washington drama House of Cards. Underwood is a honey-throated liberal Democrat in the LBJ mold who—spoiler alert!—actually murders his way from House majority whip to commander in chief.

"Given the congressional gridlock of recent years," National Journal's Lucia Graves wrote in February, Underwood's ruthlessness "doesn't sound like such a bad thing. The question, given the current legislative paralysis, is does the ends justify the means?"

Barack Obama came to prominence on an altogether different premise. "We need to rise above an ends-justifies-the-means mentality," he said on the Senate floor in 2005. Fittingly, that speech was in opposition to the then-GOP majority in the Senate changing the rules governing filibusters, a favor the Democratic majority returned in 2013-with the blessing of a president who every day looks less like a heroic statesman and more like a character in a tawdry political melodrama.