You are on page 1of 12

Who wants to be the American president who allows jihadists to claim that they defeated and drove out

American forces? Daniel Ellsberg, the government contractor who leaked the Pentagon papers, used to say about Vietnam, It was always a bad year to get out of Vietnam. The same is all too true for Afghanistan. - Excerpt from Obamas Vietnam by John Barry & Evan Thomas I. Introduction This research paper seeks to address presidential behaviors with regards to foreign war and its potentially disastrous effects on a presidents domestic initiatives. More specifically, this topic will be examined by using the historical context of Lyndon Johnsons struggles to implement his Great Society programs while fighting a popularly maligned war in Vietnam, juxtaposed against current president Barack Obamas ongoing endeavors to find a solution to a long and escalating war in Afghanistan while attempting to solve Americas economic and social deterioration at the same time. Such a topic represents the intricate relationship between a presidents ability to manage foreign affairs and achieve domestic success simultaneously, and this relationships potential to become out of control and hijack the presidency. Comparing Johnsons Vietnam to Obamas Afghanistan draws great attention due to the striking similarities between the two situations; historical and present analysis suggests that Afghanistan and Vietnam are tactically similar wars both fought during periods of history in which respective presidents strove to push reform legislation. Yet, it is important to consider that Johnsons actions at this point are simply history, while Obamas efforts to remedy Americas current issues are ongoing, and still hold the potential to reach outcomes of greater positivity than those attained by President Johnson. Thus, it is critical to research the connections between Vietnam and Afghanistan with respect to presidential action in an effort to identify what mistakes the Commander-in-Chief has made before in such a situation, in order that this result may be reversed, or simply even improved in any way. That is to say, President Obama has made similar decisions to President Johnson concerning the war which have eroded domestic support; yet the

two cases still retain distinct differences with respect to the differing levels of commitment between Vietnam and Afghanistan. Taking all of this into account, the main question concerning the analysis of the Johnson-Obama (as well as their respective wars) paradigm is raised with respect to academia. Does the decay function (along with its associated factors) and discussion about public support costs of Brace and Hinckley accurately depict the predicaments of both Johnson and Obama? As well, does Skowroneks discussion on presidential times and promises explain diminished domestic support for both? It is rather likely that Brace and Hinckleys model proves true with regards to Johnsons presidency, and that the decay function could still apply in a less complete sense to Obama, given that both presidents experienced loss of support due to grim reports from the battle front. Conjunctively, Skowroneks work concerning loss of domestic support due to unfulfilled presidential promise and expectation also is likely to be able to explain Johnsons meteoric loss of support after massive military commitment to Vietnam; whether it applies to Obama is yet to be seen. This paper seeks to use a variety of other sources to support the assertions of Brace & Hinckley and Skowronek, including but not limited to Barry and Thomas assessment on parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan, journal articles about Obamas recent actions concerning the war in Afghanistan, public opinion polls, and the LBJ Vietnam Documents. The remainder of this document will first delve into these materials and their theoretical value (Brace & Hinckley & Skowronek), afterwards applying them to the Johnson and Obamas respective cases separately, culminating with external observations and discussion about the overall validity of applying these theories to both cases, and the true connection between Vietnam and Afghanistan. II. Relevant Literature It is a well documented trend that no matter the circumstance of a presidents term, public approval rating of the job done will drop throughout regardless of what happens. Such is

exemplified by the theoretical decay function. The decay function explains that after election, the president will experience a sort of honeymoon period, where public approval remains high, as the reality of expectation in the publics eyes has not yet set in.1 Brace and Hinckley explain that the decay function is complemented by three other factors: economic conditions, dramatic events, and the circumstances surrounding a presidents given time period.2 While the decay function remains constant and essentially governs the entire process of a presidents approval cycle (starting out high early in the term, and progressing ever downwards), these other factors serve almost as mitigating influences that can either curb the downward trend and raise public morale, or simply have profound negative effects.3 It is also interesting to note that the authors give dialogue regarding presidents knowledge of these trends, and go so far as to comment that some executives are so tortured by them that they literally become obsessed and base much of their political movements off of anticipated polling effects.4 Within this vein, the authors further describe the implications polling can have on how a president attacks domestic policy. They hypothesize that presidents with broad reaching agendas know that the public will rapidly lose interest in their initiatives soon after they are elected, no matter how sizable the electoral victory or how much good will the citizenry initially has for them; Brace and Hinckley thus observe that it is likely in the best interest of all presidents to rush their programs to Congress, given their prior knowledge that it is almost certain that public support will soon dwindle.5 They relate this to the idea that the presidency is somewhat of an idealized portrait to the people, almost a savior of sorts who is essentially set up to fail.
1

Paul Brace and Barbara Hinckley. Follow the Leader: Opinion Polls and the Modern Presidents, Basic Books, 1992. p. 23 2 Paul Brace and Barbara Hinckley. Follow the Leader: Opinion Polls and the Modern Presidents. p.24 3 Paul Brace and Barbara Hinckley. Follow the Leader: Opinion Polls and the Modern Presidents. p.24 4 Paul Brace and Barbara Hinckley. Follow the Leader: Opinion Polls and the Modern Presidents. p.19 5 Paul Brace and Barbara Hinckley. Follow the Leader: Opinion Polls and the Modern Presidents. p.23

Concerning the economy specifically, Brace and Hinckley acknowledge that presidential support can at times be truly circumstantial. The financial condition the nation is mired in at the beginning of a presidents term is set almost undoubtedly by his predecessor; while the effects of bad economic policy may have not caught up with this previous executive, they may be heaped on he who enters office next.6 Brace and Hinckley relate this to loss of control, and comment that a president may lose support basically due to bad luck rather than by their own blunder. Such is true in terms of war. It is well demonstrated that a president who initiates the use of force will receive a boost in support as the nation rallies around the feeling of being threatened. However, Brace and Hinckley also delve into the converse. They relate that ongoing war, which can span multiple presidencies, can cause massive public support loss as the people begin to take to the streets and question the presidents ability to care for the nation while pouring money into foreign conflict.7 Brace and Hinckley imply that ongoing war is a breeding ground for dramatic events which weigh negatively on the president, whether it be an anti-war protest, or news of Americans dying for the flag in faraway places. These happenings in ongoing war bring a president down, eroding support and heaping expectation on solving conflict overseas, stalling domestic progress.8 Skowronek enters into this arena in evaluating a presidents political time, essentially the global diplomatic climate which can lead a president to decisions which retrospectively can cause frustration.9 He uses George H.W. Bush and the Gulf War as a theoretical model extensively to survey this intricate topic. Skowronek discusses how Bush ascended to the
6 7 9

Paul Brace and Barbara Hinckley. Follow the Leader: Opinion Polls and the Modern Presidents. P.28 Paul Brace and Barbara Hinckley. Follow the Leader: Opinion Polls and the Modern Presidents. P.29 8 Paul Brace and Barbara Hinckley. Follow the Leader: Opinion Polls and the Modern Presidents. P.29

Stephen Skowronek. The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997. p. 410

presidency with the Reagan years fresh in American minds, times of trickle-down economics and direct engagement with the enemy (not necessarily militarily, though).10 Skowronek considers Bushs domestic pledge to never raise taxes in alignment with dominant American political faith of the 1980s; this serves as an example of the president being drawn into political times. The president went so far as to personally relate his stances during the campaign directly to Reagan, telling the American public, who can you most trust to continue the Reagan revolution?11 However, Skowronek highlights Bushs wandering interest; seeing that the American citizenry was content with keeping the status-quo of the Reagan era domestically, he looked outwards into the world to further leave his mark on the global atmosphere of his day. The Persian Gulf War seemed too good to resist, Bush knowing that a decisive victory for the United States was a great possibility against a weaker state like Iraq, and that such a dominant military campaign would bring him much acclaim with the public.12 Of course, the United States and allies won a stunning victory in Iraq, yet Skowronek points out that it was not a sufficient distraction from the dilemmas of regime management.13 The author theorizes that like it has with many other presidents, the war was bound to catch up with Bush, and ruin his domestic credibility, thus eroding support. Just a year and a half into his presidency, Bush broke his hard-line stance on tax increases, an act Skowronek describes as a monumental betrayal of faith.14 Regardless of Bushs effectiveness at using foreign money to fund the foray into the Persian Gulf and pull together a vast and diverse coalition to fight the actual conflict, Skowronek

10 11

Stephen Skowronek, The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton. P. 433 Stephen Skowronek, The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton. P. 434 12 Stephen Skowronek, The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton. P. 434 13 Stephen Skowronek, The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton. P. 434 14 Stephen Skowronek, The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton. P. 434

makes the general observation that a president can destroy his credibility by abandoning any semblance of attention to domestic affairs.15 Bushs deception of his own greatest ideal, keeping taxes the same, transcends Skowroneks overarching theory that a presidents credibility with the American public is largely a balancing act between how the president handles foreign affairs and domestic affairs simultaneously. By not making good on his promise, Bush had eliminated the prospect of accomplishing anything more at home for the remainder of his term, as any promise he further made would almost never be taken seriously again. Thus, Skowronek relates how a president can take the power out of his own hands by too vigorously utilizing foreign action. Brace & Hinckley and Skowronek present excellent analyses of the conditions a president comes into when he assumes office, and how outcomes can be determined in part by more closely looking at the political background of a presidency. The former authors use polling trends to illustrate the shortfall of expectations each president experiences (along with the decay functions mitigating factors), while Skowronek uses a more historic commentary to illustrate the theory that a president can pigeon hole himself in the struggle for both domestic success while in the midst of war. Neither truly answers the question, however, of how a president is supposed to succeed in a conflictual environment. Could a president turn to Neustadts persuasional institutional pluralism to accomplish domestic goals despite overriding public distaste with ongoing war and previous domestic failure?16 Does public opinion command so much attention from the president that it ends up being his own downfall? As well, why might presidents escalate foreign war as they become increasing unpopular over the duration of the military campaign? Historical context is an excellent vehicle with which to examine these
15 16

Stephen Skowronek, The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton. P. 434 Richard E. Neustadt, Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership from Roosevelt to Reagan, 1960. P.22

questions, returning to the Johnson-Obama paradigm, two reform-minded presidents trapped by military quagmires.

III. Selected Presidential Episodes Illustrating the Problem When Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama ascended to the presidency in 1963 and 2009 respectively, they were each well aware of the ongoing conflicts they were inheriting. For President Johnson, Vietnam was not an initial priority, however. While the situation deteriorated, Johnson chose to ignore the choice of whether to further commit to Vietnam initially, focusing on the Great Society, his broad domestic initiative plan to resolve Americas pertinent social issues of racial injustice and poverty. 17 As theorized by Brace and Hinckley, Johnson realized that his support after winning a landslide election in 1964 was most likely as high as it would ever get, lending the highest potential to success for passing his domestic initiatives into law. Johnson sought to rushprograms to Congress in an attempt to preempt an almost inevitable decline in public support that he seemed to be well aware of.18 Before the end of 1964, Johnson was able to push the Civil Rights Act through Congress, making domestic headway while Vietnam still lurked in the background as intelligence reports chronicled the deteriorating situation overseas.19 Johnson made it abundantly clear where his priorities lay: in domestic reform. Yet, Johnson was about to be blindsided but the unanticipated Gulf of Tonkin incident, where conflicting reports on supposed Vietnamese attacks upon American vessels inspired the first moves of escalation despite uncertainty whether these attacks even ever occurred.20 Within days of the incident, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, granting President Johnson himself the authority

The Kennedy School of Government. Case Study II: LBJ and Vietnam. P. 5 Paul Brace and Barbara Hinckley. Follow the Leader: Opinion Polls and the Modern Presidents. p.23 19 The Kennedy School of Government. Case Study II: LBJ and Vietnam. P. 5 20 The Kennedy School of Government. Case Study II: LBJ and Vietnam. P. 9
17 18

to proceed with all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.21 Consistent with Brace and Hinckleys evaluation of dramatic events as a factor in public support for the president, Johnson went from 58% of the public disapproving of his handling of Vietnam to 72% approving.22 Johnson still remained adamant, however, that the United States did not wish to greatly escalate its involvement in the war, stating, we seek no wider warlet Asian boys fight Asians.23 Over the next year, however, Johnsons advisors would become increasingly more alarmed by the instability of South Vietnam, and the belligerence of the Viet Cong. At first, ramping up the amount of air raids on North Vietnam was the action of choice, however Johnson continued to receive ever more reports from his military advisors that a land war with massive infantry force would be required to ensure South Vietnam would not fall into the hands of communism. In July, 1965, Johnson would finally commence the massive escalation of the war, sending 50,000 troops to Vietnam that month, and 575,000 more over the next two years.24 Though Johnson had been able to also enact legislation commissioning Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, his committal to Vietnam began to sap funds he had intended for the Great Society, weakening the effectiveness of his programs as the nation began to focus its attention on Johnsons war, rather than his domestic initiatives. Between June of 1965 and March of 1968, Johnsons approval rating dropped from 65% to 36% as the publics distaste for Vietnam grew with dramatically mounting casualties that would total 58,000 by the end of the war.25 Skowroneks analysis of George H.W. Bushs domestic failure can explain such. At the
21
22

The Kennedy School of Government. Case Study II: LBJ and Vietnam. P. 9 Eugeune G. Windchy. Tonkin Gulf. Doubleday Publishing. Garden City, NY, 1971. P. 16 23 The Kennedy School of Government. Case Study II: LBJ and Vietnam. P. 9 24 The Kennedy School of Government. Case Study II: LBJ and Vietnam. P. 21 25 Gallup Presidential Approval Tracker. http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/presidentialapproval-tracker.htm

beginning of Johnsons presidency he emphasized to the public that the Great Society was his priority, even ignoring Vietnam to some degree. Yet, by 1968 Johnson had completely betrayed this statement, leaving his domestic initiatives in serious jeopardy as he chose to make Vietnam a massive conflict, and thus, his priority in the eyes of the American people. Whether or not Johnson still maintained the desire to continue with the Great Society no longer mattered; Vietnam had successfully hijacked the presidency. The effect of the publics disgust became so profound as mass protest against the war mounted that Johnson shockingly announced to America in March of 1968 that he would not even seek reelection. And thus escalation of Vietnam had led to the erosion of all of Johnsons support, sweeping away with it domestic progress, as the American populace saw a promising reformer turn war-hawk. With his inauguration on January 20, 2009, Barack Obama inherited a failing economy, a losing battle in Afghanistan, and a sub-par health care system screaming to be changed. Obamas campaign, based on reform and the building of a better America (like Johnson), promised the American people hope for a better tomorrow through new ideas. However, Afghanistan would entangle the newly elected president before he could even begin to address his social concerns. Similar to Johnsons approach of acting quickly upon election as explained by Brace and Hinckley, Obamas first act as executive was to pass economic recovery legislation in February 2009 to aid the failing economy, successfully accomplishing this objective before addressing the unpopular topic of Afghanistan. It could also be construed under Skowroneks reasoning that this timing move was a calculated one by Obama to establish faith in the American public immediately that he would not let war come before the welfare of citizens. However, Johnson waited over a year after his election to begin military escalation in Vietnam, while Obama sent

21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan almost directly after enacting the stimulus, and another 30,000 in December of 2009.26 Tactically, Vietnam and Afghanistan bear great resemblance to each other, as explained by Barry and Thomas, as well as Baker. Both have been fought against insurgency forces attempting to seize control of a failed, illegitimate state led by frustratingly corrupt installed governments.27 The United States Army could win every firefight, yet faces an unrelenting enemy who can find sanctuary across an unenforceable nearby border- these combatants cannot be pursued due to the political implications of doing such. As well, Americas inability to make progress in both wars has been met by increased troop commitment by the Commander-inChief.28 However, it is important at this point to draw a line in the sand. While it is still ongoing and the direction Obama pursues remains to be seen, Afghanistans troop commitment has never come anywhere near that of Vietnam, meaning far less casualties (less than 1,000) and expenditures. Also, one must consider the differing societal impact of the two conflicts, Vietnam having had a draft causing deep, widespread unrest across all strata of American life; Afghanistan effects only those who have voluntarily chosen to partake in the military. 29 Judging Obamas performance in relation to Johnsons is still rather difficult due to the fact that the current president is still not much more than a year into his term. However, it does appear that the decay function has taken its toll on Obama already. Since starting off with a 68% approval rating, he has fallen considerably, down to 48% in a relatively short period of time.30 However, Brace and Hinckleys model may be able to explain this sans talk of Afghanistan; the authors note that economic conditions can have a profound effect on a
Mehdi Hasan. Obama is Wrong: This is His Vietnam. The New Statesman. 21 December, 2009. P. 22 John Barry and Evan Thomas. Obamas Vietnam. Newsweek, February 9, 2009 28 Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason. Obama's Indecent Interval. Foreign Policy, December 10, 2009 29 Peter Baker, Could Afghanistan Become Obamas Vietnam?, New York Times, August 22, 2009 30 National Job Approvals. http://www.pollster.com/polls/us/jobapproval-obama.php
26 27

presidents public support. Barry and Thomas assert that upon being asked, most Americans chose the economy as their greatest concern, followed by healthcare, with only 10% choosing Afghanistan.31 Because activism towards Afghanistan isnt anywhere near the raucous protest witnessed during the Vietnam era, it seems to have become less visible to the public, and thus is probably not responsible for Obamas lack of popular support the way that Vietnam directly was for Lyndon Johnson. Conjunctively, America has as a whole expressed distaste for Obamas recent healthcare initiative; even after the passage of new landmark legislation revolutionizing the American health care system, polls show that over 50% of Americans still disapprove of the way Obama is handling the topic.32 These trends seem to suggest that with great escalation, the potential for Afghanistan to have similar effects to Vietnam on Obamas erosion of popularity exists, but it may be too early in his presidency to determine what exactly under Brace and Hinckleys logic is causing public opinion of Obama to be so low. IV. Conclusions Brace and Hinckley and Skowronek each present their own strengths and weaknesses with respect to analysis of the Johnson-Obama paradigm. The former provides a concrete rule from which to go forth- that is to say that the decay function applies to any and all presidentsthus in looking at how war erodes domestic reform support, it is rather easy to understand from this conclusion that other factors than disappointment of unreal expectations must be at play. However, Brace and Hinckley is also somewhat weak in relation to the topic of this paper in that there is no analysis concerning how other government branches, namely Congress, change their legislative behavior based on support for the president. This would illuminate much about how much public sentiment effects government as a whole, given the president needs Congress as a
31
32

John Barry and Evan Thomas. Obamas Vietnam. Newsweek, February 9, 2009 Health Care Approval Ratings. http://www.pollster.com/polls/us/jobapproval-presobama-health.php

vehicle to enact new law and policy. Skowronek shows its strength in demonstrating how the president can lose the attention of the citizenry, as well as how circumstance and predecessory actions can deeply effect how the public perceives a president. Concerning the research methods of this paper, the topic itself is rather strong, in that it provides a linkage of modern presidential behavior to that of the past, answering questions about how the way wartime reformers have carried out their agendas in different ages. However, the sheer fact that Obamas presidency is still essentially in its infancy, and scholars are yet to see what exactly the road he takes regarding solutions to the mounting issue in Afghanistan somewhat weakens overall observations. The paper is not as strong without being able to fully compare two similar presidencies, seeing how one of them is currently still in progress. The presented research of this paper leads one to believe that while the logistical surfaces of Vietnam and Afghanistan are very similar, and the circumstances surrounding each in terms of Johnson and Obamas involvement in the development of the conflict are also rather analogous, there are a few previously unforeseen differences. Johnsons restraint towards the war at the beginning of his term, and his subsequent decision years later to fight a massive war contrasts sharply with Obamas almost immediate decision following his election to commit more troops to Afghanistan while attempting to tackle domestic issues at the same time. However, it must be remembered that it is yet to be seen whether Obama will attempt to use this excessive force that Johnson chose, what with the inconclusive status of his presidency at this point. Obama should highly regard Johnsons decisions as a historical guide, serving as an example of how a great domestic reformer can be stalled in the act by not exercising discretion in foreign military conflict.