A graph in a New York Times story about Lyndon B. Johnson’s legacy includes a chart showing how Americans feel about past presidents since John F. Kennedy. Overall the numbers surprise me. We seem to like our past presidents. Only George W. Bush and Richard Nixon post approval ratings below 50%. Keep in mind that this retrospective is polled in the present’s especially deep partisanship.
The numbers also strike me as odd. A ninety-percent approval for Kennedy? He at least voiced a liberal agenda. Even made some meaningful strides in that direction. He saw the wisdom in cutting middle class taxes to stimulate economic demand; he saw government as the key player in ensuring civil rights and liberties. Kennedy also thought government should take responsibility for health, jobs, education, and affordable housing was available to all citizens. If Kennedy is pulling 90%, there is no shortage of today’s conservatives who either don’t know this or have forgotten.
Clinton at 74% , not so surprising. After all he wasn’t really all that liberal and times were good. But a good chunk of what would otherwise be a liberal perspective seem to have forgotten — or don’t understand — NAFTA, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, and welfare “reform” that all occurred under Clinton’s watch. Liberals take what they can get, however, (i.e., it is good enough to have a “Democrat” in office) and conservatives aren’t going to complain too loudly when that Democrat shepherds important details of the right’s regressive agenda into law.
Lyndon Johnson — poor guy — he signed the Civil Rights Act and still can’t get a break. Although one wouldn’t be surprised if that accounts for part of his low showing. The story in the New York Times argues that the Vietnam War is the part of his legacy that is holding him down. That’s not fair and I’m not sure it’s accurate. Wasn’t LBJ as much a traitor to his people as, say, FDR? I’m not sure.
The number that has the biggest impact on where we are today, however, has to be Reagan‘s 78%. Once again, like in all these numbers, there has to be some bi-partisan crossover. We can make the simple observation that a significant number of Democrats think highly of Reagan, but it is more significant than that.
The so-called Reagan Revolution has defined our country’s political direction for more than 30 years. The two Democrats to hold office since Reagan bend to his influence as has every Congress. In fact, Reagan marks the end of aggressive liberalism in America. So it might sound spiteful to raise any indignation that a man like Reagan — oh my! — would be admired, however we need to be careful to look deeper, something that rarely happens today.
So let’s not look deeper. Let’s just look.
Why might an American have reason to rethink the magic of the Reagan years? One would imagine that Reagan himself might take stock of things and deliver an answer in his aw-shucks self-deprecating common sense manner and say, “Well, things didn’t turn out so well.”
What is it about the Reagan legacy that has such a powerful hold on opinions? We certainly are not better off today than we were thirty years ago. Remember, in 1980 it was Reagan who asked America, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Reagan was impatient after four years. We’re barely hanging on after 30.
On of the reasons I think Reagan’s legacy remains relevant is the fact that our political system has been hijacked by a powerful political elite who has no interest in correcting the Reagan mistake and plenty of money to protect its interests. Complicit with this is an unbelievably misinformed — if not outright stupid — electorate too lazy to assess its own best interests. And I’m not just talking about Mitt Romney’s grubbing “takers” — the 47% for whom he declared disdain (although they should be screaming loudly, if not the loudest) — it includes the dying middle class and those whom we otherwise would have regarded as “wealthy” — or at least well off — 30 years ago. There ain’t much room at the top when 1% control 40% of the nation’s wealth.
Look, a lot of people thought Reagan was on the right track. I doubt there was any evil intent, although the right has long stood in opposition to the public programs that built this country, but for now we’ll have to leave that out of the discussion. The past is the past. Let’s look at the present. What might have looked like a good idea thirty-plus years ago isn’t panning out that well. So do we continue to try to do more of the same, indeed attempt to ramp it up a bit? A lot? Why?
One reason appears in the numbers. When the architect of today’s policy discourse — regardless of his original beliefs or intentions — shows such high approval even in the glaring light of his policy failings, I think we’re in some trouble. The time for critical review is far overdue.