Clearly, LBJ, who self-consciously sought greatness, believed that victory over some large challenge was part of the entrance exam. He wanted to be the second coming of his political idol, FDR, and did a fair job of tracing that picture on the domestic front – including his embrace of racial justice in a way that ran counter to everything for which his life had previously stood. But to be FDR II, he had to win a just war -- and not over an abstraction (poverty), but over a physical enemy (the march of communism). And the war that history provided for him was neither just nor winnable. As a result, nobody will ever place Lyndon Johnson in the top rung of the American Pantheon.
And the same, in all likelihood, applies to our next president, Barack Obama, despite his central-casting role as the emblem of
On the economy, though, perhaps an LBJ-level opportunity is in the cards – but probably taking a very different form. Not that Obama has evidenced much thoughtfulness or originality on the subject of economics – nor the kind of strength and toughness needed to drive something controversial to completion, as Johnson did with the Civil Rights Act. Obama simply isn’t a leader.
But perhaps, on both policy grounds and leadership grounds, not much will actually be needed? Perhaps this looming Depression II is so significant, and our self-consciousness of it is so vivid (in large part because we went through the first one), that there’s a politically meaningful consensus that something serious has to be done. And perhaps -- and this is the big "perhaps" -- a concomitant consensus will emerge about what that something must be.
He’s definitely got one thing going for him: The world will be pulling for him. His tabula rasa-dom, his ability to serve as a universal-recipient-cum-focus-object for people’s fantasies, will stand him in good stead during a universally perceived emergency – in a way it wouldn’t have in palmier times. Even a lot of us who resent this person benefiting from the misogyny and fraud he rode to the nomination want the next President of the
So I’m now hoping Obama serves as the stone soup for the collective, wisdom-of-crowds birthing of a new era. I don’t think he has the capacity to imagine it or deliver it himself. I don’t believe he has greatness in him, just waiting to be catalyzed by this crisis. In fact, I think he’s got certain aspects of narcissistic personality disorder, and that that cripples him as a decision-maker and even, long-term, as an inspirer.
But he might be a Luck Child, dropped by fate into our midst at the moment we need one... the moment when we most require a catalyst (or pretext) for a very different kind of greatness to emerge in us and among us.
And as the saying goes, it’s often better to be lucky than good.