By now, Barack Obama is probably fed up with comparisons to Lyndon Johnson. But as we move through a series of 50th anniversaries around the Johnson presidency, they will be unavoidable.
Today, Obama spoke at an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and noted, without saying it in so many words, that the struggles of Johnson’s presidency benefited from a kind of policy clarity that he does not enjoy. In the 1960s, the law allowed or (depending on where you were) enshrined a system of discrimination in voting, education, housing, and a hundred other realms. Johnson’s civil rights project was to remove those legal shackles, and legal change could have a transformative effect. But today problems like discrimination and persistent poverty are in many ways harder to confront because the logical next step to address them is often less clear.
Obama grappled with that dilemma in his speech today, in part by acknowledging that Johnson understood that passing laws was only the beginning:
“LBJ was nothing if not a realist. He was well aware that the law alone isn’t enough to change hearts and minds. A full century after Lincoln’s time, he said, ‘Until justice is blind to color, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the color of men’s skins, emancipation will be a proclamation, but not a fact.’ He understood laws couldn’t accomplish everything, but he also knew that only the law could anchor change and set hearts and minds on a different course. And a lot of Americans needed law’s most basic protections at that time.”
The presidency is different today than it was then, and Obama has been hamstrung by an opposition unlike that faced by Johnson, or any other president. Don’t forget that on the evening of Obama’s inauguration, Republican leaders gathered together and decided that they would obstruct and oppose literally everything the new president wanted to do. And so they did.
Yet Johnson’s ghost continues to hang over Obama’s presidency, the comparison suffering from the absurdity of the “Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Politics,” which holds that the outer limits of what a president can accomplish are defined by the extent of his will. Variations of this theory say that the president can transform public opinion by giving a speech (he can’t), or that if he just put more effort into courting and cajoling his opponents the way Johnson did, and had his skills at persuasion, he’d be passing bills left and right.
It’s a particularly biting criticism of Obama, since he arrived in office with the sincere belief that if everyone comes together you can indeed get things accomplished, even if no one is 100 percent satisfied with the results. He spent his whole life navigating between conflicting worlds, of race and nationality and culture. It was said that he got elected editor of the Harvard Law Review at a time of bitter ideological conflict at the school because even the conservative students felt he listened respectfully to their perspective. It’s hard to imagine now, but during the 2008 primaries, many conservatives were absolutely enraptured with Obama. As culture war general William Bennett gushed at the time: “He never plays the race card…he has taught the black community you don’t have to act like Jesse Jackson; you don’t have to act like Al Sharpton. You can talk about the issues.”
And when he got to Washington, he did try to live up to this ideal, breaking bread with a group of conservative columnists at George Will’s house. But it was all for nought. The Republican party had grown so radical in both its ideology and its tactics — for instance, filibustering every single bill more consequential than the renaming of a post office, something that had never been seen before — that he had only a brief window when control of the House and a 60-vote majority in the Senate allowed for significant legislation.
Compare that to the Congress Johnson faced. While there’s no question he was a master of legislative maneuvering, most people forget how much room he had to maneuver. In the 89th Congress elected during the 1964 election, Democrats controlled more than two-thirds of the seats in both houses. Yes, many members were conservative Southern Democrats opposed to civil rights. But if Obama had those majorities today, who knows what kinds of sweeping bills he’d pass.
What’s more, when LBJ was working you over to get your vote, he had something he could offer to make it worth your while. Maybe it was a new bridge in your district, or maybe the promise of fundraising in your next election. He could flatter or bully you, but in the end there had to be at least something in it for you. The earmarking system is gone, so he can’t direct dollars to your district. Gerrymandering has constricted the number of competitive districts to a tiny sliver. The parties have sorted ideologically — there are no more liberal Republicans, and just a few conservative Democrats left. To a great degree, there’s no one left to persuade.
Obama is keenly aware of how differently things work today; after all, it’s a problem he confronts every day, and it isn’t a matter of charming anyone, as he told the New Yorker’s David Remnick a few months ago:
Obama and his aides regard all such talk of breaking bread and breaking legs as wishful fantasy. They maintain that they could invite every Republican in Congress to play golf until the end of time, could deliver punishments with ruthless regularity—and never cut the Gordian knot of contemporary Washington. They have a point. An Alaska Democrat like Begich would never last in office had he voted with Obama. L.B.J., elected in a landslide victory in 1964, drew on whopping majorities in both houses of Congress. He could exploit ideological diversity within the parties and the lax regulations on earmarks and pork-barrel spending. “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 told me. “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.”
It’s always dangerous to compare one president to another, particularly when they’re separated by a half a century. As he told the New Yorker, the basic relationship between the institutions of Congress and the presidency have been transformed by a host of historical factors. making ambitious governmental solutions harder to achieve. Some Green Lanternite pundits see this as excuse making, but broadly, speaking it’s the truth. Meanwhile, as he hinted at today, problems such as poverty, inequality, and persistent racial disparities are much less straightforward, and their solutions are far less apparent than they were in LBJ’s era. Comparisons between the two presidents may be seductive, but each has to be judged on the realities of his own time.