A couple of entries from the Wall Street Journal’s “Notable and Quotable” section just days apart recently caught my attention. One is from Doris Kearns Goodwin on Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society from her book, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, the other is from a 1939 article in the New York Herald Tribune by Walter Lippman on conflict in the Roosevelt administration during the New Deal deliberations.
First, Goodwin: “In his determination to get Congress and America moving again, Johnson demanded support for the Great Society and confidence in the capacity of government to improve all the conditions of society as matters of faith……………And so it went in message after message. The subjects might change, but the essentials remained the same: in the opening, an expression of dire need; in the middle, a vague proposal; in the end, a buoyant description of the anticipated results–all contained in an analysis presented in a manner that often failed to distinguish between expectations and established realities…………….Pass the bill now, worry about its effects and implementation later–this was the White House strategy.”
Now Lippman: “………….there are two main tendencies inside the New Deal, and the President is never quite able to make his choice for one or the other–social reform or control of the economic system…………….This is the issue between the reformers and the radicals. Both believe in spending, but the reformers regard the spending as an instrument of recovery and a means for improving the condition of the people. The radicals regard the spending as a substitute for recovery and as a means of altering the balance of social policy.”
I suspect (frankly, I hope) that there may be some elements of these kinds of debates underway in the Obama White House, but let’s make no mistake about the nature of the incumbent–his ambitions for transforming the relationship between Americans and their government likely dwarf those of either of his two predecessors referenced in the quotes above, and he has already clearly announced the basis on which he will proceed: the concept of “fairness”, largely achieved by a leveling of outcomes in all walks of life. The first big test will be nationalized health care, so get ready.