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Why oh why oh why can’t Barack Obama be more like Lyndon Johnson?

23 April 2013

4:39 PM

23 April 2013

4:39 PM

So, is Barack Obama a wimp or just another lame-duck second-term President? Maureen Dowd, in her typically sophomoric fashion, appears to believe that the failure to pass gun control legislation shows that the President has not been paying enough attention to Aaron Sorkin movies. Tim Stanley, who at least knows something of how Washington works, suggests this failure reveals Obama as a lame-duck.

Today’s New York Times piles on with an article asking, essentially, why oh why BHO can’t be more like LBJ. As is so often the case, a presidential setback must be attributed to an absence of Presidential willpowerThe Cult of the Presidency is an eternal flame that can never, ever, be extinguished.

Thank heavens Ryan Lizza is on hand to remind us that Presidential power is always limited.

A fundamental fact of modern political life is that the only way to advance a coherent agenda in Washington is through partisan dominance. When Obama had large Democratic majorities in Congress during his first two years in office, he led one of the most successful legislative periods in modern history. After he lost the House, his agenda froze and the current status quo of serial fiscal crises began. Like it or not, for many years, Washington has been most productive when one party controlled both Congress and the White House.

The boring fact of our system is that congressional math is the best predictor of a President’s success. This idea is not nearly as sexy as the notion that great Presidents are great because they twist arms in backrooms and inspire the American people to rise up and force Congress to bend to their will. But even the Presidents who are remembered for their relentless congressional lobbying and socializing were more often than not successful for more mundane reasons—like arithmetic.

Lyndon Johnson’s celebrated legislative achievements were in reality only a function of the congressional election results—not his powers of persuasion. In 1965 and 1966, after the enormous Democratic gains of the 1964 election, Johnson was a towering figure who passed sweeping legislation. In 1967 and 1968, after he lost forty-eight Democrats in the House, he was a midget.

Quite. Even so, the comparison with Lyndon Johnson is instructive because it reminds us that the theme, fashionable in liberal circles these days, that Washington is fundamentally broken is itself hardly a new phenomenon. Indeed, it is by no means obvious that Washington’s sclerotic division of power is worse now than it was when Lyndon Johnson bestrode the scene as a masterful Texas-sized mastodon.

It is true, of course, that Johnson was able to pass a string of landmark bills. It is also true that his record owed a lot to forces beyond his control. If you have the votes you can pass big bills; if you don’t you can’t. That sounds banal but it’s the kind of tedious truth far too many people who should know better pretend not to know at all.

Huge chunks of the two most recent volumes of Robert Caro’s monumental biography of LBJ are devoted to Congressional wrangling and arm-twisting. Caro argues that the Senate was, essentially, moribund for the best part of 25 years before Johnson found ways of unblocking the legislative logjam that had for so many years stymied civil rights legislation (and much else besides). In other words, the “system” was just as banjaxed then – and, in fact, more so – than it is now.

For four years Franklin Roosevelt had pistol-whipped Congress, pushing through the New Deal. But his attempt to pack the Supreme Court stirred the Senate into life, uniting Republicans and southern Democrats against the President. Though Congress gave FDR a “free hand in running the Second World War”, Caro writes, “he never got a single major social reform through Congress during the eight years of his presidency remaining after the Court fight”.

Truman fared little better, not even after he won his great victory campaigning against the “Do-Nothing Congress” in 1948. As Caro notes, Truman’s only victories in the civil rights arena  – chiefly desegregating the US army – were “obtained by executive orders which did not require Capitol Hill’s consent”.

True, the mighty dam built by southern Democrats in the Senate leaked some water in the Eisenhower years but, again according to Caro, by the time John F Kennedy entered the Oval Office (with LBJ as Vice-President) it had been repaired and seemed as, and perhaps more, impregnable than ever. As Caro puts it, “Of his major domestic legislative proposals – Medicare, federal aid to education, the tax cuts, civil rights – nearly three years into the administration of John F Kennedy, not one had become law”. Hell, Kennedy struggled to even pass appropriations bills.

Considered in that historical context, Barack Obama’s Congressional failures seem pretty trivial. And of course, as Lizza notes, Obama’s first term included some pretty consequential legislative victories. Presidents – of both parties – have been trying to pass universal health care for more than 50 years. Obama, for good or ill, was the president who did it. Similarly, you may disagree on whether the economic stimulus he passed was too large or too small but you cannot dispute that it was passed and that, like health care reform, it was, as Joe Biden would put it, a decent-sized expletive deal.

Perhaps Obama could have done more to twist arms in the Senate. He was doubtless closer to the 60 votes he needed than the final vote suggested (knowing the bill could not pass allowed some Democrats to slip away from a Yes vote they might have cast had the parliamentary arithmetic been different). But, again, if the votes aren’t there it don’t matter a damn what the public thinks or even, really, what the President wants.

This was true half a century ago and it remains true today. In one sense the President’s task is more difficult now than it was in LBJ’s day. The parties have completed their long realignment. There are many fewer Democrats who should be Republicans (and vice versa) than was once the case. Consequently, the parties are much more united than they once were. It is harder to play factions off against one another because, ultimately, there are fewer factions. Partisanship rules and Congress looks and behaves much more like our own parliamentary system than it did in the past.

This may well be sub-optimal but it’s the way it is and there is a limit to what the President can realistically achieve. This is especially so when support for any given measure – such as gun control – is widespread but shallow and opposition is narrow but deep.

LBJ had another advantage denied Obama too. His predecessor had been assassinated. That may be an indelicate way of putting it; nevertheless it created room for LBJ to pass Kennedy’s tax cut (though he also had to cut the federal budget to do it) which in turn created time (but only just) to pass the 1964 civil rights act. But these were, obviously, unusual circumstances.

And they were circumstances that helped produce (with an assist from Barry Goldwater) the Democratic landslide in the 1964 elections. And that in turn allowed the south to be marginalised at last, giving Johnson the votes to pass his Great Society legislation. Even that triumph, however, proved short-lived since, as Lizza says, the votes swung against Johnson after the mid-terms.

So, again, the myth of LBJ requires us to forget that LBJ was not always in a position to be the LBJ of mythic memory. If LBJ could not always actually be LBJ it seems absurd to demand that Obama be LBJ as well. And it doesn’t matter how many times he watches Sorkin’s The American President. 

It is revealing, however, that this kind of West Wing fantasy still proves so powerful and so commonplace.

Still, when immigration reform (of some sort) is passed eventually the pendulum will swing back and we will be treated to articles saluting Obama’s legislative prowess. These too will most likely be triumphs of wishful thinking. The White House, quite sensibly, is content to let others make the running on immigration reform. If the bill passes it will do so because a sufficient number of Republicans have decided it is in their interests to pass a bill, not because the President has bullied them into supporting it.

So, in the end, Obama is no more of a lame-duck than any President who does not have the votes in either the Senate or the House of Representatives. Democrats may control the Senate but they don’t have the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster so their control is heavily qualified.

If, then, Washington is broken this demands one a) ignore Obama’s first-term record and b) forget that it’s not very much more broken than it always was. The “system” is all but set up to fail. There are times when that proves useful and others when it may be a matter for angst and regret. But there it is.



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