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On Health-Care Reform, Obama Looks to Johnson's Model
"There are two qualities these presidents have in common," said White House senior adviser David Axelrod. Like Obama, Johnson "had a big vision and drove the country toward it, and second, he had a great appreciation for the legislative process."
Early on, Obama and health czar Nancy-Ann DeParle discussed the parallels with Johnson and creation of the health program that serves 45 million seniors and people with disabilities today. Just as Johnson gave legendary lawmaker Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.) latitude to craft the Medicare bill, Obama has asked Congress to write the health-care revamp legislation.
And just as Johnson was known for his powers of personal persuasion, Obama, a former senator himself, has assiduously cultivated and cajoled lawmakers.
"He becomes Lyndon Johnson in a more graceful form but just as steely," said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.). "Obama isn't a toucher" like Johnson, Rockefeller said, "it's just intellect, this sort of streaming knowledge and a deep voice that never seems to get weary. It's clear he has to have this."
Obama devotes at least one hour a day to health care, often studying briefing memos about individual lawmakers and their pet issues, said one White House aide. The topic is woven into most of his public appearances, as he "makes the case that inaction has disastrous implications for the future," Axelrod said.
In private meetings or phone calls with legislators, Obama "has an easy familiarity," said DeParle, who often joins the sessions. "He has a way of getting right to the heart of the matter. He's pushing and prodding and giving no ground."
When the president leans back in his chair, flashing a broad smile, "he is very persuasive," she said. After he listens to lawmakers' concerns, he often replies: "There's no reason to delay."
As a reminder of the blueprint they have settled on, DeParle keeps a Johnson quotation under glass on her desk, just above the keyboard. It reads: "There is but one way for a president to deal with the Congress, and that is continuously, incessantly, and without interruption."
Obama has lavished attention on moderate GOP senators such as Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) and Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), who provide the seal of bipartisanship he covets. His message to Snowe, like many others, is that "this is his highest domestic priority, and he wants to get it accomplished and done this year," she said. "I indicated to him it was important to be flexible on the time frame and on trying to draft the substance of legislative policy."
Snowe and Rockefeller praised Obama for his deference to the legislative branch, but both signaled he may soon have to wade into the messier details of the bill.
"At some point, the president's going to have to play a pivotal role in shaping what happens," Snowe said. "It is crucial."
On Capitol Hill, conservative House Democrats are pushing back against a graduated surtax on incomes exceeding $350,000 a year, saying the plan would unduly increase the highest marginal tax rate. Many senators expressed a distaste for any tax increase for the wealthy.
Obama appeared undeterred.
"I understand people are a little nervous and a little scared about making change," he said. "The muscles in this town to bring about big changes are a little atrophied, but we're whipping folks back into shape."
Staff writer Lori Montgomery and staff researcher Eddy J. Palanzo contributed to this report.