Lyndon Johnson gave his final public speech at a civil rights symposium held at his presidential library in December 1972. He said that watching a panel discussion with Henry González, the first Hispanic representative from Texas, and black civil rights leaders like Clarence Mitchell and Julian Bond overwhelmed him. “I love these men more than a man ought to love another man,” he said. That was his way of trying to capture what “a great honor you do me by your participation in these proceedings.” Imagine the honor he would feel on Thursday when the first black president travels to that same location to celebrate Johnson’s passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Obama’s visit further burnishes LBJ’s legacy, but it’s not a two-way street. Johnson looms over Obama’s tenure more than perhaps any of his predecessors. The pundits ask: Why can’t Obama be more like Johnson? Regular people ask, too. During the 2012 election, participants in Obama campaign focus groups asked the question regularly. If only Obama had Johnson’s skills, he’d be able to move Congress on immigration or gun control without wasting so much time in circular budget fights. The passage of his health care plan and Wall Street regulation would have been smoother.
The anniversary this week has raised these old comparisons and annoyed the president’s advisers afresh. The short answer to explain why no president has matched LBJ’s legislative prowess is that LBJ had unique skills well suited for a particular historical moment. In fact, if he wanted to get elected in today’s anti-Washington environment, LBJ would have to conceal these skills, and the truth is the system has changed so much even LBJ wouldn’t be as effective today as he was 50 years ago.
But as the Obama presidency winds down, there’s a new constituency that benefits from keeping this unfavorable comparison alive: the men and women who would like Obama’s job in 2016. A presidential campaign finds its shape in the deficiencies of the current administration. Candidates in both parties will present themselves as leaders who can get something done when nothing is getting done in Washington. They will suggest they have the LBJ skills Obama lacks. That is the message coming from Republican governors such as New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, and it’s the implicit message from Bill and Hillary Clinton when they talk about the culture of partisanship in Washington. If only there were someone in town who could get the two sides to agree.
The LBJ critique of Obama rests on the appealing idea that the tools of the presidency are available to any occupant. If only Obama had the talent to pick them up and use them. This is a magical understanding of presidential power, but it’s the kind that is encouraged in presidential campaigns. In campaigns, candidates can promise transformation and future effectiveness without much fear that anyone will ask how they will pull it off.
It was actually Hillary Clinton who first raised the LBJ comparison during the 2008 campaign. During the New Hampshire primary, she tried to point out that there’s a distinction between rhetoric and legislative success. Martin Luther King spoke eloquently and movingly about equal rights, but it took LBJ’s legislative know-how to pass the Civil Rights Act. It was a reasonable point, but voters didn’t buy it. Clinton was claiming some legislative talent for herself that she didn’t really have. Obama’s message of hope allowed him to bury the question of experience. He ran against the political tactics of the Clinton years as cynical and self-serving. He was going to find a new way to get things done.
So it’s no wonder Obama doesn’t have a long list of friends on the Hill and doesn’t like spending his afternoons massaging congressional egos. He was elected on the promise that he wouldn’t be good at those things. And he kept his promise! In interviews with dozens of Republicans and Democrats in Congress over the years, Obama’s weak congressional relations always come up. Ask a senator about how many times he or she has talked to the president and the most common reply you’ll hear is that when they talk with the president they get the feeling that he is “just checking the box.”
Johnson was the opposite. “[He] loved to manipulate people, to control events, to feel like he’d put something over on somebody,” wrote his longtime Senate aide Bobby Baker. “He loved the process—the flanker movements, pincer movements, the deployment of troops—almost as much as he savored the victories.”
Johnson used to say that a president needed to court members of Congress like he courted his wife. He kept track of the vanities and vulnerabilities of the members he needed most and played on them. As Todd Purdum, author of An Idea Whose Time Has Come, the wonderful new history of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, points out, Johnson talked to his enemies and rivals not to convince them to go along with his program but to gain intelligence and create mischief.
It’s tantalizing, even cinematic, to read about how Johnson operated. It suggests an efficiency almost foreign in Washington today where efforts by one entity can lead to a result that might help people. Johnson had once-in-a-lifetime skills given a boost by big congressional majorities in his party and the momentum of a national tragedy. Proof of how hard it is to move Congress comes not from a comparison to Obama but to John F. Kennedy. Though Kennedy operated in the same political era as LBJ—when it was easier to make deals and presidential threats were more powerful—he didn’t achieve as much domestically as Obama did during the same period in his first term.
Johnson developed his skills in an institution that now has an approval rating in the low double digits. It’s hard to imagine that today’s electorate, which has such a foul view of Washington and the unprincipled politicians who work there, would vote for such an operator. It’s also hard to imagine that Johnson could rise intact as a public figure in today’s saturated media environment. Johnson’s skills for understanding human needs came from his own deep neediness. His vindictiveness, penchant for bragging, and bouts of paranoia would never have been confined to the back offices the way they were in his day. They’d be the subject of vast Vanity Fair and New Yorker profiles, and consume endless hours of cable talk.
Bob Dole was the last candidate to run as a Johnson-like inside player. Conservatives in his party never really rallied around him because they thought his talent for deal-making and legislative achievement meant he lacked principle. Every inch a senator, Dole could not break out of his upper house’s rhetorical style to speak in the flowing sweep required in the modern presidential campaign.
But let’s imagine that someone with Johnson’s skills could sneak into office. He’d have a tough time working his magic. He would find it difficult to engage a willing partner in such a partisan age. Lyndon Johnson had a pool of Republicans who felt a moral pull to pass civil rights legislation. There was no such large group that wanted to pass universal health care so much that they were willing to buck their party. Members of one party who might want to work with the opposite party have to worry about the outside groups—often backed by wealthy donors—that punish collaborators. In Johnson’s day, on most legislation he was working to get 51 votes. The increased use of the filibuster has raised that bar to 60.
In the 24-hour news environment Johnson’s little payoffs and punishments would be exposed immediately. It’s not just that the microscope is more powerful. The public takes a dim view of legislation used for personal reasons rather than the good of the country. Others think the government can never work for the good of the country and see inside dealing as feather-nesting, not a necessary tactic to break a deadlock and produce effective government. When Obama tried to buy the vote of Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson on health care, the “Cornhusker kickback” was discovered, publicized, and removed from the bill.
Given these obstacles, is it time to stop looking for someone with Johnson’s skills and rethink what it means to be effective in Washington? Obama supporters argue passage of the stimulus in 2009, the Affordable Care Act, and Wall Street reform are all signs of the president’s effectiveness. Those measures were passed without Johnson era bipartisan majorities, which means that while Obama didn’t achieve a new era of cooperation, he may have discovered the tactics to win in the new era.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker argues that government can only be effective when one party is in power. But single-party rule isn’t likely to happen often, and that still doesn’t remove Congress’ role as a co-equal branch, which means even if it is controlled by the president’s party, a president is still going to need legislative acumen. If Johnson-like legislative skills are in vogue now, voters should probably drop their fixation with candidates unsullied by practical political experience. Voters should also be more skeptical about how candidates are going to get Congress to enact their fancy campaign claims.
Is there a candidate who has some share of the Johnson talent who could get elected and yet still be effective once in office? We don’t know. Barack Obama never made congressional relations a sustained priority. George W. Bush didn’t either. Bill Clinton had a talent for working with his opponents, but Washington is more polarized now.
We’ve never really seen a real test of an all-out effort to woo Congress in the new age of partisanship. Perhaps the kind of talent that can figure out how to work with Congress in its current incarnation only comes along every 50 years.