Steve Chapman

But that Obama vanished sometime after Election Day. Lately, he brings to mind Lyndon Johnson, who imagined that the country could easily afford both endless war and a costly array of new programs.

Obama thinks the scariest economic crisis since the Great Depression is cause -- or at least excuse -- for an aggressive expansion of government, a la the New Deal. But it's a false parallel, economically and politically.

The severity of the Great Depression bred desperation, which made the public receptive to radical changes. This contraction has been far milder and less disruptive. In Franklin Roosevelt's day, Americans were open to transforming the economy. All they really want today is to revive it.

While they are willing to accept drastic measures to reverse the recent slide, they are not likely to favor keeping them once the emergency has passed. We all hope to see firefighters in the house if the kitchen catches fire. Few of us would want them to move in after the flames are out.

LBJ illustrates the dangers of taking an election victory for a far-reaching mandate. He got the Great Society passed, but two years after his landslide victory, Republicans made big gains. In 1968, Johnson didn't even run for re-election, and Richard Nixon won the presidency -- which the GOP would hold for 20 of the next 24 years.

Americans, with their traditional wariness toward government, never bought into Johnson's expensive agenda. Before long, they were voting in Ronald Reagan, who saw Washington as the problem, not the solution. So even though Obama may be able to get his programs through a Democratic Congress, he and they may come to regret it.

Under Clinton, they demonstrated that his party could exercise fiscal responsibility, contain the role of government, learn from liberal failures (like welfare) and generate broad prosperity. He was convincing evidence that Democrats had changed.

Right now, I miss him. Before long, Democrats may as well.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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