WASHINGTON – Without presidential leadership in the trenches, there is no chance that Congress, particularly a divided Congress, will step on the third-rail politics of raising taxes or cutting popular programs such as Medicare, much less deploy the federal government to reduce the number of Americans living in poverty. These are the same folks who haven’t been able to agree on a budget for almost three years.
Washington seems to have lost its sense of social justice and economic responsibility. As political and private-sector leaders nationwide realize that an engaged president is key to progress, many wish that Barack Obama was more like Lyndon B. Johnson. The refrain of many Democrats — and some Republicans — is that at least with LBJ, Washington worked and we got something done.
Obama will never be like Johnson, but LBJ’s presidency offers lessons that could help him win a second term and make that term more than another example of Oscar Wilde’s aphorism that the only thing worse than not getting what you want is getting it.
As Obama seeks to straddle the political center, he evidences something of a disdain for his unabashedly liberal predecessor who escalated the Vietnam War. He rarely mentions LBJ or credits the avalanche of Great Society programs that made Johnson the most effective progressive president of the 20th century.
This is ironic, given how Obama has benefited from those programs. Food stamps helped his mother feed the family. The 1965 Higher Education Act (and its progeny) helped pay for Barack and Michelle Obama’s college and law school educations. Without Johnson’s signature achievements — the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights acts — Obama could never have been elected president. Johnson’s doctrine of affirmative action opened opportunity to millions of African Americans who supported Obama’s candidacy with their wallets.
Obama has no stomach for the eternal schmoozing essential to legislative success. Johnson loved every minute of it. Obama had virtually no Washington experience; Johnson was more a creature of the capital than of Texas hill country.
It’s true that LBJ did not have to face unyielding Tea Party and rightwing Republicans. But Johnson confronted intransigent Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans who despised and filibustered his civil rights initiatives, and who viewed as socialist most Great Society programs — from anti-poverty initiatives such as Head Start (attacked as an effort to Sovietize American children) to the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (assailed as government overreach). These opponents were at least as tough as today’s anti-tax Republicans, and the race issue was far more emotional.
LBJ spent enough time in the House and Senate and working with presidents to understand that Washington functions best with strong and involved presidential leadership. Obama does not seem to get that. Left to its own devices and not led by a strong president, Congress is incapable of dealing with problems such as deficit reduction or crafting controversial and visionary domestic policy initiatives. Only a president can bridge the institutional chasm in the legislative branch where both parties constantly solicit campaign contributions and maneuver for control every two years.
Even Obama’s signal legislative success, the Affordable Care Act, reflects his failure to understand how to use the presidency. Difficulties in implementation — 26 states are suing to kill the law; Republican presidential candidates promise to repeal it; long-term care has been scrapped for lack of funds — stem from having allowed partisans in Congress to shape the bill and pass it on party-line votes in both houses.
In contrast, I remember LBJ saying that “we must have” Republican support for Medicare and Medicaid, because if “we don’t have bipartisan support on the take-off, the programs will never make it to the landing.” Congressional Republicans, he said, would undercut our efforts in appropriations committees, and their fellow travelers in states, communities and corporations would seek to derail it.
Another insight for Obama is that Johnson was willing to fall on his sword to get policies he believed in. When he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he told an aide, “We are turning the South over to the Republicans for my lifetime — and yours.”
When the economy needed a tax increase, LBJ went after it with all his persuasive and political power. Unable to get the job done in 1967, he devoted much of the 1968 speech in which he announced that he would not seek re-election to pressing Congress to pass his 10 percent surcharge on corporate and personal income taxes. His extraordinary act of abnegation got his tax bill passed and a final budget that preserved the Great Society programs and had a surplus, the first in many years.
For Obama, politics appears to trump policy; for Johnson, politics was the quintessential tool to achieve policy.
That may be the most important lesson for Obama from the LBJ presidency — and the one that gives Obama the second term LBJ gave up. It is a lesson instinctively understood by Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan — other presidents who shaped their years in office and beyond.
Joseph A. Califano Jr. was U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s chief assistant for domestic affairs from 1965 to 1969 and the secretary of health, education and welfare from 1977 to 1979.
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