Guns or Butter: The Presidency of Barack Obama

Tuesday 22 September 2009, by JOHN FEFFER

The Vietnam War ruined everything. It not only destroyed Vietnam and killed a huge number of its inhabitants. It not only killed so many American soldiers and destroyed the futures of so many veterans. It not only spread into Cambodia and Laos and wrecked those countries for generations.

The Vietnam War also killed the Great Society. President Lyndon Johnson, with a large Democratic majority in Congress after the 1964 elections, enacted sweeping reforms in education, health care, and transportation, along with landmark civil rights legislation. But the pressure of spending on the Vietnam War — the guns vs. butter debate of the 1960s — eventually brought this last, great program of genuine American liberalism to a halt and scuttled the hopes of its architect for a second presidential term.

Will the Afghanistan War drive a similar stake through the heart of President Barack Obama’s ambitious domestic program?

The two major issues currently on the public agenda are health care and the war in Afghanistan: the guns vs. butter debate of the 21st century. This year, the annual cost of the Afghan War has jumped to $60 billion. In total, we’ve spent over $220 billion on the nearly eight-year conflict. If General McChrystal gets his way and the administration sends even more troops, the bill will only grow. Meanwhile, Obama has his own version of Great Society reform on the table in the form of an ambitious health care initiative. It won’t come cheap. The president has promised to cap the costs of his plan, the Holy Grail of liberal reformers since FDR’s time, at $900 billion over 10 years.

The question is: Can Obama have his guns and eat his butter too? We’ve already laid out huge chunks of money for the financial sector bailout followed by the economic stimulus package. The Pentagon is continuing to spend as though we aren’t facing a $1.6 trillion government deficit for 2009. The military budget for 2010, 4% larger than last year, clocks in at $636 billion.

Johnson believed that he could have both guns and butter. "We are a country which was built by pioneers who had a rifle in one hand and an ax in the other," he proclaimed. "We can do both. And as long as I am president we will do both." His hubris was not unprecedented. The other great liberal reformers, Woodrow Wilson and FDR, also tried to balance their ambitious domestic programs with military engagements overseas.

Johnson, of course, did not remain president for long. He pushed through most of his Great Society reforms in his first two years in office, when he had large Democratic majorities in Congress. By 1968, the war in Vietnam had led to considerable criticism of the president’s record and a major drop in his popularity, and Johnson decided not to run for reelection. As Irving Bernstein writes in his probing study of the era, Guns or Butter: The Presidency of Lyndon Johnson, "One may speculate over what might have been if the country had remained at peace. Economic policy was working superbly in 1965 and it is likely that prosperity would have continued into 1968. In Chicago the Democrats would have renominated the Johnson-Humphrey ticket and it would have won easily. This might have launched a long period of Democratic control of the White House and the Congress. The Great Society would have survived and might have been expanded."

This expansion might well have been global. A few years after the end of the Vietnam War, ministers from 134 countries gathered in Kazakhstan and issued a declaration calling on the international community to reduce the gap in health care between the industrialized and developing worlds. "They considered the slogan ’Health for All by the Year 2000’ as a laudable and achievable goal," writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Adam Parsons in The Global Health Debate. "Not only did it involve guaranteeing access to essential health care at a community level for all people of the world, but primary health care services were to work closely with health-related sectors responsible for other essential needs including education, safe water, sanitation, and food security." This attempt at a Global Great Society foundered with the rise of neoliberal economic programs in the late 1970s.

History could have marched down a different path in 1965. After all, as a candidate in 1964, Johnson argued that "we don’t want to get involved in a nation with 700 million people [China] and get tied down in a land war in Asia." As president, however, Johnson did exactly that: committing U.S. ground forces to Vietnam in 1965. This decision ultimately doomed his presidency and the Great Society. We’ve been living with the Considerably-Less-Than-Great Society of the neoliberals and neoconservatives ever since.

Obama, as a candidate in 2008, promised to refocus the U.S. military on Afghanistan. As president, he now has a chance to reverse himself and end the war. According to some recent indications, the president is willing to rethink his approach to Afghanistan. If he does, he can rescue his own Great Society ambitions, secure himself a second term of office, and acquire an enduring legacy as the first president to resolve the guns vs. butter dilemma in the only sustainable way possible.

Foreign Policy in Focus

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