President Barack Obama comes face to face Thursday with the legacy of Lyndon Johnson.
Obama will deliver the keynote address at Johnson’s presidential library in Austin, Texas, marking the 50th anniversary of the landmark Civil Rights Act, which helped pave the way for the first African-American president.
While paying homage, Obama also inevitably will invite comparison to the man who defined the art of the political deal while muscling through a remarkable array of legislation, including Medicare, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act, in addition to the Civil Rights Act.
Johnson’s success at wheeling and dealing with members of Congress one by one to get what he wanted contrasts with Obama’s frustrations with Congress. It invites potentially unfavorable comparisons between the former Senate majority leader’s hands-on tactics and Obama’s more cerebral approach to governing.
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“Johnson was very comfortable manipulating, cajoling and pressuring members of Congress to do things in a way that Obama doesn’t have the skill set nor the experience, nor the inclination for,” said Jeremi Suri, a history professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Johnson had a better understanding of how Congress works and how hard you must work on a one-on-one basis with every crazy member of the House of Representatives to get every vote,” Suri said.
Senior White House officials insist Obama fares well when his legislative record is compared with Johnson’s.
They note that when Obama had Democratic majorities in his first two years in office, he achieved his signature health care law, an economic stimulus act that sought to avert a further financial crisis and Wall Street regulatory reform.
And they note that some of the tools that Johnson employed with success to bring lawmakers over to his way of thinking aren’t possible anymore, with a legislative crackdown on pork barrel spending and earmarks, as well as a press likely to seize on evidence of patronage.
Obama himself argued that Johnson’s success rate dimmed as his strong majorities were diminished.
“When he lost that historic majority, and the glow of that landslide victory faded, he had the same problems with Congress that most presidents at one point or another have,” Obama said in a New Yorker profile. “I say that not to suggest that I’m a master wheeler-dealer but, rather, to suggest that there are some structural institutional realities to our political system that don’t have much to do with schmoozing.”
A number of presidential historians and scholars agree. In the same New Yorker profile, LBJ biographer Robert Caro said comparisons between the two are impossible.
“Johnson was unique,” he said. “We have never had anyone like him, as a legislative genius.”
Johnson loved Washington and “loved wheeling and dealing,” said Joseph Califano, a domestic policy adviser for Johnson.
“He knew exactly what someone needed or wanted, what their price was, whether it was a dam or a federal office building or an invite to a White House dinner,” Califano said.
Still, he calls comparisons between Obama and Johnson unfair, saying Johnson took office at a time of deep societal change – and before unprecedented sums of money in politics began to change the equation.
“The general public, we felt government could do things, government could change the world,” Califano said.
Some historians argue that the Johnson effect on bringing recalcitrant lawmakers over to his side has been exaggerated.
“The argument that Obama should be schmoozing, playing golf more and he’d get votes, that’s a bad rap,” said George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. “Johnson was very good at getting what he could from Congress, but not because he was such a persuasive guy or people just loved him so much.”
Instead, he attributes the passage of much of the legislation to the readiness of the country to support them. “The battles had been fought, the country was coming around,” he said.
Johnson also took the presidency as the nation was mourning the death of President John F. Kennedy, who had championed the Civil Rights Act.
“Johnson was a gifted guy, but he had a magic moment,” said Bruce Buchanan, a presidential expert at the University of Texas at Austin.
He called Johnson masterful in a way that no president has been, but he said he doesn’t believe that Obama – even if he were as skilled – would be able to make headway.
“Republicans have what amounts to a policy decision to give this president as little as possible other than what they need for their own interest or survival,” Buchanan said. “When you’re up against that kind of rigid opposition it’s hard to persuade your way out of that, even if you have the skills of a Lyndon Johnson.”
And some question whether Johnson would be as successful in the current political environment, noting he had the tide of history on his side.
“We’re in a history period now of increments,” said Kent Germany, a history professor at the University of South Carolina and a scholar with the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “In the 1960s they were in the period of big gulps. This was a period of major changes.”
He called it unfair to compare any politician to Johnson as a legislator.
“It’s what he was born to do and he loved it,” Germany said.
Much has been made of Johnson’s comments that the civil rights legislation would cost the Democratic Party, but Germany said Johnson was playing a longer game, one that reconfigured the Democratic Party to become more inclusive and closely identified with Great Society programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.
It’s that new Democratic Party’s base that nominated Obama and drove his success at the ballot box, he said.
“Obama’s election in 2008 and 2012 is really an election based on Johnson’s Great Society,” Germany said. “Obama clearly rides the wave that Johnson helped accelerate in 1964, and I think that Johnson would be absolutely delighted that the first black president was coming to speak at his library. And he would take credit for it.”