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Cash-strapped US faces choice - guns or gurneys?

Posted: Thursday, October 15, 2009

We're close to our spending limit on the nation's credit card. The bank bailout, the stimulus package, the Iraq War, and the overall military budget: each is costing over $500 billion. Now the Obama administration is looking at two more hefty charges: a national health care plan and a surge in Afghanistan. It's time to make a decision. We can't do both guns and gurneys. After all, we're looking at a $1.6 trillion government deficit for 2009.

That's what our entire national debt used to be back in the early 1980s.

The last time we tried to fight a major war and launch an ambitious domestic program, we ultimately failed at both. The war was in Vietnam and the domestic program was called the Great Society. The Obama administration can still learn from the failures of the Lyndon Johnson era before it succumbs to failures of its own.

Lyndon Johnson famously 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 of the 20th century, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, also tried to balance their ambitious domestic programs with military engagements overseas.

Johnson's Great Society programs, which he pushed through in his first two years of office with the help of large Democratic majorities in Congress, were ground-breaking: Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, Vista, landmark civil rights legislation. Johnson was not initially determined to push guns as well as butter. 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. 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 re-election.

If not for Vietnam, the American economy would have continued at a brisk pace, and Johnson would have likely been re-elected in 1968. He not only could have continued the Great Society programs but expanded them as well. Instead, his larger ambitions for domestic reform fizzled, and we've been living with the Considerably-Less-Than-Great Society of his Democratic and Republican successors ever since.

As a candidate in 2008, Obama promised to refocus the U.S. military on Afghanistan. As president, he now has a chance to reverse himself and end the war. Recently, the president has appeared willing to rethink his approach to Afghanistan. If he does - and begins to rapidly draw down the Afghan War as part of an overall reduction in military spending - 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.

The budget numbers require some hard decisions. For the health of the country - and the health of his political career - Barack Obama has to reduce the amount of money we're spending on guns and refocus the national conversation on gurneys instead.

• John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.



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