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Biden confronts his own LBJ’s choice

President Joe Biden pauses while speaking during a NATO 75th anniversary celebratory event at the Andrew Mellon Auditorium on July 9 in Washington, D.C. NATO leaders convene in Washington this week for its annual summit to discuss their future strategies and commitments, and marking the 75th anniversary of the alliance's founding.
Andrew Harnik
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Getty Images
President Joe Biden pauses while speaking during a NATO 75th anniversary celebratory event at the Andrew Mellon Auditorium on July 9 in Washington, D.C. NATO leaders convene in Washington this week for its annual summit to discuss their future strategies and commitments, and marking the 75th anniversary of the alliance's founding.

The first Democrat in Congress to go public urging President Biden to end his reelection campaign this month cited a potent historical precedent — the decision by President Lyndon B. Johnson to withdraw from the presidential race of 1968.

It was 15-term House veteran Lloyd Doggett of Texas who said out loud what many were saying to themselves after Biden’s shockingly poor performance in the June 27 debate with former President Donald Trump.

Doggett noted a personal connection in his statement, because he now represents much of the Austin-area district that first sent LBJ to Congress in the depths of the Great Depression.

While saluting what both LBJ and Biden were able to accomplish during their presidencies, Doggett said LBJ had bowed out in the best interests of the party and the country and provided a model for others.

“Under very different circumstances, [LBJ] made the painful decision to withdraw,” Doggett said, referring to Johnson’s waning popularity amid a confluence of factors, including the Vietnam War. “President Biden should do the same.”

Doggett’s advice to Biden has been echoed by many in Congress and other elected offices but mostly not in public. In the media, the voices calling for Biden to step down swelled into a chorus. A 22-minute TV interview with ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos on July 5 neither worsened nor assuaged the near-panic in Democratic party circles.

All the same, in public at least, Biden and his inner circle of family and staff have been adamant about his determination to stay in the race and his fitness to do so. They point to polls in recent days that show the head-to-head with Trump little changed since before the debate. Other polls show a widening Trump lead and note new record highs in the percentage of voters and even Democrats saying Biden “is too old to be president.”

A different time, different circumstances

Age was not the issue for LBJ in 1968. He would not turn 60 until that summer, though he did seem notably older than he had when taking the oath to succeed the assassinated President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

LBJ’s first 4 1/2 years in office had been among the most eventful in White House history. He had pulled together a grieving nation and pressed his own party to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A few months later, he had won a full term of his own in a historic landslide that carried huge Democratic majorities in Congress. In 1965, LBJ deployed those majorities to pass the Voting Rights Act, Medicare and a raft of social programs dubbed “The Great Society.”

But in that same year, LBJ also escalated the U.S. commitment to the anti-communist government of South Vietnam. By 1968, half a million American troops were serving in that country, fighting troops from North Vietnam and insurgents known as the Viet Cong.

President Lyndon B. Johnson announcing he will not seek or accept the nomination for reelection on March 31, 1968. Image is a screen grab.
CBS Photo Archive/CBS via Getty Images / CBS via Getty Images
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CBS via Getty Images
President Lyndon B. Johnson announcing he will not seek or accept the nomination for reelection on March 31, 1968. Image is a screen grab.

With public support eroding and no end in sight, the war shattered Democrats’ party unity and spawned increasingly serious challenges to LBJ’s renomination. The most threatening came from New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, brother of LBJ’s slain predecessor (His son is running an independent in the 2024 election). Polls that March cast doubt on LBJ’s renomination and also leaned the November election toward Republicans.

Nonetheless, the unexpected withdrawal announcement stunned the political world. Known for his lifetime of dogged aspiration and obsession with winning, LBJ was assumed to be an officeholder who would never let go.

But he pre-empted all network primetime programming on the Sunday night of March 31. After discussing the Vietnam situation at length, he finished with a pledge to devote himself entirely to seeking peace and added: “Accordingly, I will not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

Historians have since dissected LBJ’s decision, looking for its origins in the previous months. They have found evidence of him seriously considering such a move as far back as the fall of 1967, even directing a speechwriter to draft an announcement for his State of the Union speech in January 1968. (He later told aides he could not lay out an ambitious program for the year in Congress and then say he was walking away.)

As late as the weekend of his withdrawal, LBJ was still agonizing and consulting with his closest confidants. He spoke with his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, and his daughters, both of whose husbands had deployed to Vietnam. Queries sent out to White House staff and longtime donors and supporters mostly urged him to stay the course.

Some who heard LBJ vow that night to devote his time to peacemaking may have taken that explanation at face value. Most did not. Many saw LBJ as fearing voter rejection, especially if it also cost the Democrats up and down the ballot.

What few could have known at the time was the degree to which LBJ himself had been worried about his physical health. He had survived a heart attack years earlier, and a recent gallbladder surgery had not healed properly. He shared thoughts of death in confidence with a few advisers and counselors, including the popular evangelist, Billy Graham.

Robert Dallek, author of Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, wrote that LBJ did not make his final decision until the days just before the announcement.

“Pessimistic assessments of his chances and sheer exhaustion strongly influenced his decision,” Dallek wrote.

When Johnson finished the Oval Office speech that night, Lady Bird was the first person to reach him, kissing him and congratulating him. She would later write of the relief she felt that night.

After leaving office in January 1969, LBJ died just four years later at the age of 64. In that same month, a new senator named Biden was sworn in for his first term, having just turned 30.

A man reads the news in the April 1, 1968 <em>Chicago Tribune</em> announcing President Lyndon B. Johnson's decision not to run for reelection.
Historical/Corbis via Getty Images / Corbis via Getty Images)
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Corbis via Getty Images)
A man reads the news in the April 1, 1968 Chicago Tribune announcing President Lyndon B. Johnson's decision not to run for reelection.

LBJ and Biden: Contrasts and careers

Biden and LBJ represented vastly different parts of the country and the economy, one growing up in rural Texas and the other in factory towns of Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware.

LBJ was a Southern Democrat from the Depression era when bringing electricity to rural areas was still a major issue. Biden was a union-backed lawyer who came of age admiring John and Robert Kennedy in the late 1960s when the big issues were the Vietnam War and then busing children to achieve integration in public schools.

But both men shared a love for the Senate, where LBJ swiftly ascended to majority leader after one full term and where Biden later served six terms and chaired both Judiciary and Foreign Relations.

Along the way, both made unsuccessful runs at the presidency that fell short in the early primaries. But both recovered as vice presidential candidates chosen by men who became charismatic and transformational presidents.

For LBJ that president was John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic to win the White House and an inspirational figure for a generation both in politics and culture. . Although the two men were rivals more than friends, JFK needed LBJ to carry Texas in the Electoral College. Without Texas, JFK would not have won in 1960.

For Biden it was Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president who, like JFK, brought an infusion of youth and inspired many in political life and beyond. Obama’s choice of Biden surprised many, but it strengthened the ticket with white working-class voters who had long been essential to winning Democratic coalitions and who had not been with Obama in the big-state primaries that year.

Even after their elevation by association with these presidents, both LBJ and Biden reached their pinnacles of political success in part through political circumstance. LBJ went into 1964 with a decent chance of winning a term on his own and no intraparty challenger. But he soared to a historic landslide that November because a divided GOP nominated Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, a hardcore conservative who carried his home state and five in the Deep South. He got just 38.5% of the popular vote nationwide.

Biden began his third try for the Democratic nomination in 2020 and promptly flopped in Iowa and New Hampshire. But he recovered in South Carolina and became the party’s last alternative to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic Socialist making his second try to be the Democratic candidate. After South Carolina, as other Democrats running for president coalesced behind him, Biden swept the remaining primaries.

About that same time, the COVID pandemic struck and the nation focused on Trump’s handling of that crisis. Trump supported the development of vaccines and large federal bailout programs but otherwise downplayed and dismissed the disease. The economy took a dive, millions were out of work. Voter turnout in November was the highest in memory and Biden got 8 million more votes than Trump.

Comparing the endgames

And now, Biden’s career path seems to have intersected with LBJ’s yet again as the Democratic convention nears and doubts remain about his candidacy.

In LBJ’s case, the principal source of weakness in March 1968 was related to policies and their consequences. Going all in for victory in Vietnam had backfired when victory proved elusive. Efforts at racial justice had proved frustrating and produced backlash. The rioting from the summer of 1967 hung like the memory of smoke over many of the nation’s cities.

Biden has struggled with events as well. Federal largesse during and after the pandemic contributed to a spike in inflation that has taken time to come to earth. While the numbers have gotten better, consumers still see high prices and wonder. Immigration on the Southern border has also spiked, and while here, too, the numbers have come down, the perception of “open borders” persists.

On foreign policy, Biden has suffered from a disastrous exit from Afghanistan and the consequences of sustained support for Israel. The current government there has angered much of the world with its ongoing retaliation against Gaza for a terrorist attack by Hamas fighters based there. Many in the U.S. have grown weary of helping Ukraine battle Russian invaders.

Still, one need not be an apologist for Biden to see all these liabilities as less than fatal – especially compared to what LBJ faced in 1968.

One need not be a campaign spokesperson to imagine a scenario where inflation, interest rates and the number of illegal border crossings all continue to come down. It is even conceivable that a cease-fire might be achieved for Gaza. Under those circumstances, a comeback and a second term for Biden would be plausible – especially if job growth and record highs on financial markets continue.

Or so it seemed untilJune 27 and the debate. What sets the Biden case apart now is the paramount issue of his physical and mental fitness at age 81 and counting.

Comparing his performance in the June 27 debate to his showing against Trump in the fall of 2020, observant voters cannot help but wonder how Biden may change over the next 4 ½ years he would be in office. That means a vote for Biden in 2024 will be widely regarded as a vote for his running mate, Vice President Kamala Harris, to be president.

In one distinct way, Biden remains in a stronger position to hang on than LBJ was then because Biden already has a virtual lock on the Democratic nomination. LBJ was looking shaky in early primaries in 1968 but in that era those events did not bind nearly as many delegates as they do now.

LBJ might have been saved at that year’s convention by state party chairs and big city mayors who could still deliver delegates or even entire delegations. But after that, the system changed. Delegates are allocated now according to the outcome of caucuses and primaries. Having faced only token opposition earlier this year, Biden has virtually all the delegates committed to him. They’re his unless he releases them.

Still, he does see polls and track their trends. He knows his support in the party has at least begun to fray. He hears the media chorus urging him to retire. He has to wonder, along with most of the country, whether someone else would do better in November against Trump. Moreover, he knows that having the presidential nominee win or keep it close is critical for the survival of other Democrats up and down the ballot nationwide.

An aftermath and a bottom line

When LBJ stepped out 56 years ago, the initial reaction was overwhelmingly positive in the media, among political professionals and from the public at large. The president’s Gallup Poll approval percentage shot up from the mid-30s to 50 in the following week, and approval went even higher in some other polling done more immediately after the announcement. The North Vietnamese even showed a renewed interest in having serious peace talks.

But that moment of euphoria was short-lived. The momentous events of that year had only begun. Less than a week after LBJ withdrew, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and rioting returned in major cities, including Washington D.C. The following month Robert F. Kennedy was fatally shot on the night he won the presidential primary in California.

The Democrats went to Chicago to sort it all out at their national convention. Even as they struggled to do so they were upstaged by massive anti-war protests outside that became a street battle as police waded in with batons flailing. (A federal-state investigation later called it “a police riot.”)

Yet in the end, LBJ’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, emerged with the nomination. Although unwilling to renounce LBJ’s war policy, Humphrey had hailed from the party’s progressive wing and had a store of good will among liberals, labor leaders and civil rights activists. He cobbled together a competitive fall campaign and closed the polling gap that fall. Some historians have argued with evidence that, with a few more weeks to campaign, Humphrey might have defeated Republican Richard Nixon that November.

Since that fateful year, no incumbent president who was eligible for a new term has stepped back from seeking one. LBJ was the fourth to do so in the 20th century. The others were Harry Truman in 1952, Calvin Coolidge in 1928 and Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 (who later changed his mind and ran again in 1912). All four had first taken the oath when a president died in office, so each had served out his predecessor’s unfinished term before winning one of his own.

In the end, the underlying reality shared by all these historic episodes is the fragile and unpredictable nature of a power system that depends on the physical and mental capacity of one individual. That is especially true when that system works to entrust its ultimate powers of office to individuals likely to be advanced in years and already subject to health problems.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.