April 23, 2013
President Lyndon B. Johnson addresses a joint session of Congress. (Associated Press)
President Lyndon Johnson addresses a joint session of Congress. (Associated Press)

President loses vote in Congress. President subjected to unflattering comparisons to Lyndon Johnson.

It’s been going on since … well, it probably started with Nixon, but it’s certainly been going on since Jimmy Carter was in the White House. Barack Obama has been getting the treatment (not The Treatment, which was what people called LBJ’s personal bullying) since the gun bill was defeated in the Senate — the New York Times has yet another one today in a front-page piece (see Greg Sargent’s general takedown here).

Please: Just stop it.

I’ll just go through the reasons quickly:

1. Johnson was extremely successful … with huge majorities in both chambers of Congress, and in the aftermath of a presidential assassination. He deserves credit for what he did, but the context highly favored action.

2. The mid-1960s were far different than the early 21st century. Parties were much, much weaker; it was the age of the individual legislator. Nor were the parties polarized. It’s just a totally different playing field then and now.

3. Johnson faced filibusters … on key civil rights legislation. He did not face filibusters on every single thing he proposed. He didn’t have to fight a dedicated partisan opposition over every judicial and executive branch nomination.

4. Put two and three together, and realize: to get anything through the Senate, Obama needs the votes of Republicans, every one of whom has strong partisan incentives to oppose him. Johnson really never faced anything like that.

4. Generally, the political science literature on presidential persuasion emphasizes how little presidents are able to accomplish when it comes to swaying votes in Congress.

5. Johnson wasn’t just any president; he was a president who had been a very effective Senate Majority Leader. He came to the White House with years of relationships with many senators; to the extent he was successful, it’s probably not something that’s easy for anyone else to duplicate.

6. And this one is overlooked: Johnson’s bullying style was successful … for a while. By the end of his presidency, it wasn’t working any more. Getting a reputation as an effective negotiator has a lot of advantages, but getting a reputation as a bully who can’t be trusted creates a lot of problems — even if bullying can be effective in the short run.

The bottom line here is that a lot of pundits and reporters really don’t want to accept that in some cases there’s really nothing a president can do to flip votes in Congress. Especially votes from the other party. It’s totally fair to report on what presidents attempt to do, but the context — the filibuster, partisanship, electoral incentives — is a big part of the story, and nearly always a bigger part.

And Lyndon Johnson comparisons? Not helping.