Wednesday, February 21 , 2018, 6:11 pm | Fair 58º


Mark Shields: Can Obama Go One-on-One?

With health-care reform on the line, the president needs to prove he has the skills to confront conflict

In their superb book on last year’s presidential election, The Battle for America 2008, Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson, two gifted political reporters, persuaded David Axelrod, President Barack Obama’s political strategist, to share his Nov. 28, 2006, memorandum assessing the strengths and weaknesses of Obama as a potential 2008 presidential candidate.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

Axelrod candidly questioned Obama’s “willingness and ability to put up with something you have never experienced on a sustained basis: criticism.” He added: “You care far too much about what is written and said about you. You don’t relish combat when it becomes personal and nasty. When the largely irrelevant Alan Keyes (Obama’s improbable 2004 Senate campaign opponent) attacked you, you flinched.”

In just a little more than seven months, Obama has more than demonstrated, if not the willingness, then certainly “the ability to put up with” criticism “on a sustained basis.”

“The (2009 political) combat” has definitely become “personal and nasty.” Who could legitimately blame Obama for failing to “relish” viciously irrational attacks from nationally prominent TV commentators and opposition politicians comparing him to Adolf Hitler, accusing him of championing a “Nazi” health-care reform plan and charging that he was not born to his late mother in the United States?

But to borrow the idiom of Obama’s favorite sport, basketball, what we don’t know is whether he is willing and able to go one-on-one with U.S. senators and key members of Congress. That is, can Obama, in order to save his embattled health-reform plan, engage directly in individual encounters — some of which will almost certainly involve both conflict and confrontation — with congressional barons from both parties?

Medicare was created by the 89th Congress 44 years ago. President Lyndon Johnson, who couldn’t communicate effectively over television, was in the White House. He was not a compelling public speaker. But Johnson was able to persuade Congress to guarantee civil rights by passing the federal Voting Rights Act, to initiate federal aid to public schools through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and to provide medical care to the needy through the passage of Medicaid.

Yes, Johnson did have large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. But remember that those Democratic majorities were deceptive because their ranks were swollen by conservative members from the then-still solidly Democratic South. Where Johnson politically dominated was in his masterful ability to go one-on-one with lawmakers.

It was a talent Johnson perfected as Senate majority leader, when the enormously popular Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, was president. Even with just a razor-thin Senate majority of only one or two votes, LBJ never lost a key showdown vote with Ike.

Somehow, Johnson could always persuade that one needed senator to vote his way.

To convince a Senate colleague, LBJ reportedly explained that all he needed to know about that senator was whether his “mommy married ‘up’ or whether his mommy married ‘down.’”

If Johnson’s targeted colleague’s mother had married “down” — socially, economically, intellectually — Johnson explained, then the mother would have transferred all her hopes and her ambitions to her son from her husband. Therefore, Johnson concluded, all he needed to do was convince the wavering legislator that with this vote he was going to make his mommy proud. Brilliant.

For the Obama administration and health-care reform, now it is LBJ time. It is time for Obama to prove that he will brave conflict and confrontation by engaging resistant senators and lawmakers in personal, direct encounters. It is urgent that Obama prove when the game is on the line that, yes, he can really go one-on-one.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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