WASHINGTON (AP) — Perhaps no historical analogy irks the White House more than the comparisons between Presidents Barack Obama and Lyndon B. Johnson, two Democrats who occupied the Oval Office a half-century apart.
Obama’s advisers bristle at the suggestion that the current commander in chief could break through congressional gridlock if only he could emulate Johnson’s hands-on approach to wrangling votes on Capitol Hill. Obama’s team argues that both the Republican Party and the broader political landscape have shifted so significantly since the 1960s that there is little use in harkening back to Johnson’s cajoling, arm-twisting and physically intimidating lawmakers to back his priorities.
“You can certainly learn lessons from the experiences of other presidents, but it’s folly to take a presidency from 50 or 100 years ago and transport that into the modern day,” said Jennifer Palmieri, Obama’s communications director.
Johnson’s mastery of congressional deal-making is getting a fresh turn in the spotlight as the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark Civil Rights Act. On Thursday, Obama will pay tribute to the historic bipartisan legislation during an event at the Johnson presidential library in Austin, Texas.
While much has changed in Washington over the past 50 years, the presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin says Johnson did make it a priority to interact with lawmakers to an extent that Obama has not.
“He would call them at 6 a.m.,” Goodwin said of Johnson. “He’d have them for lunch, he’d have them for dinner. If he called and the husband wasn’t there, he’d tell the wife to get her husband to support the bill.”
Obama, in one of his few public comments on Johnson’s legacy, appeared to try to puncture some of the mythology surrounding the former president’s political prowess. He noted in an interview earlier this year that many of Johnson’s most impressive achievements came on the heels of his sweeping victory in the 1964 presidential contest, an election that also resulted in big Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate.
“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 The New Yorker. “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.”
Obama’s advisers have long disputed the notion that the president could win Republican support if only he had cultivated deeper relationships with GOP lawmakers. While Johnson was able to exploit the ideological diversity in the Republican Party to win votes in the 1960s, the tea party movement has pulled Republicans to the right and made it politically risky for some GOP lawmakers to even be seen with Obama, let alone vote for legislation he champions.
What’s also changed since Johnson’s tenure is the toolkit presidents can use to curry favor with lawmakers, with ethics laws and earmark bans limiting what can be offered in exchange for votes.
“He made tremendous progress on a lot of fronts so I wouldn’t now second guess how he got that done,” Palmieri said of Johnson. “But the kinds of tactics that people attribute to him are things that are derided today in politics.”
It’s against the backdrop of Obama’s troubled relationship with Congress that it’s become trendy to long for the days when Johnson could cajole or strong-arm votes from lawmakers in both parties. A new play about Johnson’s presidency has opened on Broadway. And the biographer Robert Caro, who has attended Obama’s occasional White House meetings with presidential historians, is writing a new volume in his series about Johnson’s life and presidency.
Johnson oversaw the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, as well as an ambitious anti-poverty agenda that included a permanent food stamp program and the creation of the Head Start early childhood education program. Johnson also followed up the 1964 civil rights legislation with the Voting Rights Act, a measure that cleared the way for millions of black Americans to vote for the first time.
But it wasn’t Johnson’s Democratic majority alone that sealed those victories. As he pressed for passage of the civil rights bill, he faced opposition from within his own party, with Southern Democrats staunchly opposed to the measure. Johnson focused much of his attention on building alliances with Republicans, including Everett Dirksen, the Senate minority leader who helped the president rally GOP votes to break a Democratic filibuster of the civil rights bill.
Julian Zelizer, a political history professor at Princeton University, attributed Johnson’s legislative success to a deep understanding of what made Congress tick, institutional knowledge that he built up during more than two decades in the House and Senate.
“I don’t think Obama has that love or respect for Congress,” Zelizer said. “He never fully attached himself, not just to the people, but to the institution.”