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Elbert: LBJ, Bush and Biden


Not since Lyndon Baines Johnson has an incoming U.S. president had as much congressional experience as Joe Biden. Nor have we had a new chief executive with as much foreign policy experience since George Herbert Walker Bush. 
The obvious thing that Biden has in common with Johnson and Bush is that all three served as vice president before assuming full command, although their routes to power were vastly different. 
Johnson became president following the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, from whom great things were expected but who is remembered today for his ineffectiveness and an overactive libido. 
In 1989, Bush was seen as a steady hand who understood government and would consolidate and extend the legacy of the great communicator Ronald Reagan, who wasn’t much for details. 
Like Johnson and Bush, Biden has been around and knows how to get things done.
In 2008, when Barack Obama chose Biden as his running mate, many assumed that given their nearly 20-year age difference and the generational change that Obama’s win represented, the most likely path to power for Biden was if Obama, like Kennedy, died in office. Or he would be dubbed the heir apparent, as Bush was, and win the first post-Obama election.
Obama did not die, but Biden’s son Beau did, causing the grieving vice president to drop from consideration in 2016.  
But he came back in 2020, defeating Donald Trump, perhaps the least likely and most controversial president ever. 
Now, as Biden prepares to enter the White House, expectations are high, perhaps too high, which I’ll come back to in a minute. 
Biden has a long list of legislative achievements. During his 36 years in the Senate, he chaired both the Judiciary and the Foreign Relations committees, collaborating at times with Republicans to the annoyance of many Democrats.   
By way of comparison, Johnson spent 12 years in the U.S. House and 12 more in the Senate, rising to the top job of Majority Leader, before becoming vice president. 
Johnson’s years in Congress served him well when he suddenly became president and was able to pass all the civil rights and budget legislation that had stalled under Kennedy. He also won approval for programs to help the poor and elderly, including Medicare and Medicaid, which were beyond the reach of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.
Bush was another insider. Before running for president in 1980, he served as ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican Party and director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He was also a member of the prestigious nonprofit think tanks the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission. 
As president, Bush oversaw the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany, and he put together an international coalition that defeated Iraq in 1991 in the First Gulf War.
Unfortunately, Johnson and Bush had blind spots and both left office under less than desirable conditions. 
Despite Johnson’s many domestic accomplishments, he failed to understand the Vietnam War and prevent it from tearing the country apart.
Bush, despite his deft handling of foreign policy, failed to grasp the forces that reshaped the U.S. economy during the 1980s and early 1990s.
Biden comes into office facing challenges on both the world stage, where U.S. leadership has been severely undermined, and on the domestic front, where Obama’s efforts to reinvent health care have stalled and are sliding backward. 
He’ll have to manage both crises while staring down the worst pandemic in U.S. history. 
To make matters worse, Biden leads a nation that is as politically divided as at any time since the Civil War, with a need for success that is in many ways as great as it was for Roosevelt when he took office during the Great Depression. 


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