By PATRICK HEALY © 2008 New York Times News Service Lyndon Baines Johnson understood power on the atomic level. He knew what bills would...


© 2008 New York Times News Service

Lyndon Baines Johnson understood power on the atomic level. He knew what bills would fly in Congress, how to build coalitions, which lawmakers were undecided. He had an insider’s knowledge of their egos and frailties. He appreciated that he couldn’t succeed with just Martin Luther King Jr. on his team; he needed Everett M. Dirksen, the Senate’s Republican leader, too. His touch could be light or very firm, as the moment required.

Hence: Medicare and Medicaid, the Civil Rights Acts, the war on poverty and the war in Vietnam – one of the most activist and controversial agendas ever enacted by a president (and in just five years, at that).

Johnson’s gifts for leadership had nothing to do with being John F. Kennedy’s vice president; he honed his skills, and built a useful list of chits, as majority leader of the Senate from 1955 to 1960. He proved the upsides of senatorial savvy in the Oval Office – an uncommon display, given the tendency of voters to favor governors, vice presidents and generals as presidential candidates with executive experience.

John McCain or Barack Obama would be only the third president in history to go directly from the Senate to the White House. And, perhaps not coincidentally, both men face an electorate that seems more open to Senate-style compromise and negotiation, defying conventional wisdom in modern politics.

Maybe what John Kerry – one in a long line of failed senators-cum-nominees – called the “stubbornness” and “rigidity” of the Bush administration has changed all that. The alienation of allies; the go-it-alone strategy in Iraq, and the lack of immigration reform and a new energy policy; the rise in gas prices and health care costs have left many Americans in a dyspeptic mood. And with all the problems in the world, polls show there is a desire for a candidate with more foreign policy experience than a typical governor has.

Given the costs of a with-us-or-against-us presidency that achieved relatively little on Capitol Hill, maybe voters think a split-the-difference senator isn’t such a bad idea. In a New York Times/CBS poll in February, 72 percent of Republican primary voters said they wanted a Republican president to compromise with Democrats to “get more things done,” while 14 percent wanted a president to stick to the party’s positions. Democratic primary voters lined up in a similar way behind a Democratic president.

“It makes a great deal of sense that McCain and Obama are the first senators who will jump to the presidency in a long time,” said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who was campaign manager for the 1996 nominee, Sen. Bob Dole. ‘`Obama knows how to maneuver problems by using the right language, how to use the visuals of national politics, how to be pragmatic – all Senate skills, though he hasn’t been there for long.

''In McCain’s case, the Senate chamber allowed him to build this independent maverick streak that made him the perfect nominee for this cycle,“ Reed said. ”And I think as president, he’ll engage Congress in untraditional ways. He has a great sense of what will pass on the Hill. He’s learned from the Bush years that it’s tough to force-feed Congress. And like LBJ, he understands power and how to use it.``

Beyond the nominees’ skill sets, their reputations for flexible thinking and their abilities to adjust to new conditions and changing facts may come as a relief after the ideological rigidity of the current Bush administration, not to mention decades of partisan Washington bickering under Democratic and Republican presidents.

''Normally a ‘change’ election is about a rejection of a certain ideology or the ultimate triumph of a countering ideology, like Reagan in '80 and Gingrich in '94,“ said John Weaver, a Republican strategist who worked for McCain until last year. ”This one strikes me as all about electing a person who can come in and solve big problems – putting the country first, not ideology.``

Rahm Emanuel, a Democratic congressman and a supporter and adviser to Obama, said the two nominees show that both parties are seeking a break from Bush – on issues when it comes to Obama, and style and approach with both men.

''What people are looking for, most of all, is someone who is an antidote to what they see as the current president’s negatives: too divisive, too stuck in his ways, a man who doesn’t share Americans’ priorities,`` he said.

Not that either McCain or Obama is some sort of gooey post-partisan, of course. McCain wants to stay the course in Iraq, and has all but promised to toe the right wing’s line on Supreme Court nominations. Obama, for all of his talk about unity, is pushing a standard-issue liberal agenda in many respects, including universal health insurance and tax increases on the wealthy.

Yet both men have shown some original talents in the Senate, too. After his defeat in the presidential primaries in 2000, McCain recast himself in Washington as an issue-oriented problem-solver, and unsettled some Republicans by working with liberals like Russ Feingold and Edward M. Kennedy to enact campaign finance reform and attempt an overhaul of the immigration system. And he infuriated many in his party by helping build the so-called ''Gang of 14,‘` a bipartisan group of senators that sought to avoid a showdown over President Bush’s judicial nominations.

Obama, who was elected to the Senate in 2004, showed discipline in steering clear of fiery partisan rhetoric in Washington, and moved quickly to work with Republicans on an ethics reform package. To a great extent, as a new member, he kept his head down and did not showboat, even though he was something of a celebrity in the Senate. And even before he joined the body, he already understood the importance of awing an audience; his Democratic convention speech in 2004 was a career-making moment for him, and he knew it well beforehand, aides say.

McCain also has substantial foreign policy bona fides – as a Vietnam veteran and prisoner of war, as a member of the Armed Services Committee – that many Americans, according to public and private campaign polls, still want in a president. Obama, a relative newcomer to the Foreign Relations Committee, moved to accumulate national security experience on the fly, literally, when he traveled last week to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East and Europe.

Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster who worked on Walter Mondale’s campaign in 1984 and Edward M. Kennedy’s in 1980, said the profiles of the two nominees meshed with his early view that the 2008 election would be ''a rare Washington year.``

''There’s a real desire for a new president to be experienced and knowledgeable in foreign affairs and about Washington, in part a reaction to President Bush’s inexperience and to Iraq,“ Hart said. ”And our polls are showing that people want government to take a stronger role in solving the issues of the day.``

In other elections, a ''strong leader‘` – a much-tested phrase of presidential pollsters – was the foremost quality that voters sought, to the disadvantage of some senators seeking the presidency. Sen. George McGovern, the Democratic nominee in 1972, was a traditional liberal facing an incumbent president who promised strength, Richard M. Nixon. Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s vice president and a former senator, had the misfortune of challenging Ronald Reagan, the incumbent, who had shown himself to be strong and unyielding with the Soviets.

Republican senators haven’t fared much better. Dole was viewed as another master of the Senate, who had friends in both parties and whose word was his bond, but he was running against an incumbent who enjoyed an improving economy, and he struck some voters as too old and out of touch. Other senators, like Sam Brownback, Orrin Hatch, Richard Lugar and Arlen Specter, had more experience than Republican presidential candidates like Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes, but the senators came off as less colorful and more stentorian.

Of course, there have been presidents other than LBJ who had served in the Senate and profited in the White House from lessons learned on Capitol Hill – Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy and Nixon among them.

And Obama and McCain aren’t the only members of that club to have done well with voters this year. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who also ran as a pragmatist and a bipartisan-minded senator, nearly beat Obama.

''Voters are much more willing to take a whole fresh look at where this country needs to go this year,“ Hart said. ”Instead of saying that experience is my guidepost, they’re willing to say ‘new ideas and new directions will be my guideposts.’``

Including, it seems, a different kind of president.

© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.