The LBJ Library recently held a multiday program to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, and by all accounts, the program was stirring and stimulating, up to and including President Obama’s speech.
But there was one downside: the reactivation of one of the most enduring memes and myths about the presidency, and especially the Obama presidency. Like Rasputin (or Whac-A-Mole,) it keeps coming back even after it has been bludgeoned and obliterated by facts and logic. I feel compelled to whack this mole once more.
The meme is what Matthew Yglesias, writing in 2006, referred to as “the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics,” and has been refined by Greg Sargent and Brendan Nyhan into the Green Lantern Theory of the presidency. In a nutshell, it attributes heroic powers to a president — if only he would use them. And the holders of this theory have turned it into the meme that if only Obama used his power of persuasion, he could have the kind of success that LBJ enjoyed with the Great Society, that Bill Clinton enjoyed in his alliance with Newt Gingrich that gave us welfare reform and fiscal success, that Ronald Reagan had with Dan Rostenkowski and Bill Bradley to get tax reform, and so on.
If only Obama had dealt with Congress the way LBJ did — persuading, cajoling, threatening, and sweet-talking members to attain his goals — his presidency would not be on the ropes and he would be a hero. If only Obama would schmooze with lawmakers the way Bill Clinton did, he would have much greater success. If only Obama would work with Republicans and not try to steamroll them, he could be a hero and have a fiscal deal that would solve the long-term debt problem.
If only the proponents of this theory would step back and look at the realities of all these presidencies (or would read or reread the Richard Neustadt classic, Presidential Power.)
I do understand the sentiment here and the frustration over the deep dysfunction that has taken over our politics. It is tempting to believe that a president could overcome the tribalism, polarization, and challenges of the permanent campaign, by doing what other presidents did to overcome their challenges. It is not as if passing legislation and making policy was easy in the old days.
But here is the reality, starting with the Johnson presidency. I do not want to denigrate LBJ or downplay his remarkable accomplishments and the courage he displayed in taking on his own base, Southern Democrats, to enact landmark civil-rights and voting-rights laws that have done more to transform America in a positive way than almost anything else in our lifetimes. And it is a fact that the 89th Congress, that of the Great Society, can make the case for having more sweeping accomplishments, from voting rights to Medicare to elementary and secondary education reform, than any other.
LBJ had a lot to do with the agenda, and the accomplishments. But his drive for civil rights was aided in 1964 by having the momentum following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and the partnership of Republicans Everett Dirksen and Bill McCullough, detailed beautifully in new books by Clay Risen and Todd Purdum. And Johnson was aided substantially in 1965-66 by having swollen majorities of his own party in both chambers of Congress — 68 of 100 senators, and 295 House members, more than 2-to-1 margins. While Johnson needed, and got, substantial Republican support on civil rights and voting rights to overcome Southern Democrats’ opposition, he did not get a lot of Republicans supporting the rest of his domestic agenda. He had enough Democrats supporting those policies to ensure passage, and he got enough GOP votes on final passage of key bills to ensure the legitimacy of the actions.
Johnson deserves credit for horse-trading (for example, finding concessions to give to Democrat Wilbur Mills, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, to get his support for Medicare), but it was the numbers that made the difference. Consider what happened in the next two years, after the 1966 midterm elections depleted Democratic ranks and enlarged Republican ones. LBJ was still the great master of Congress — but without the votes, the record was anything but robust. All the cajoling and persuading and horse-trading in the world did not matter.
Now briefly consider other presidents. Ronald Reagan was a master negotiator, and he has the distinction of having two major pieces of legislation, tax reform and immigration reform, enacted in his second term, without the overwhelming numbers that Johnson enjoyed in 1965-66. What Reagan did have, just like Johnson had on civil rights, was active and eager partners from the other party. The drive for tax reform did not start with Reagan, but with Democrats Bill Bradley and Dick Gephardt, whose reform bill became the template for the law that ultimately passed. They, and Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, were delighted to make their mark in history (and for Bradley and Gephardt, to advance their presidential ambitions) by working with the lame-duck Republican president. The same desire to craft transformative policy was there for both Alan Simpson and Ron Mazzoli, a Senate Republican and a House Democrat, who put together immigration legislation with limited involvement by the White House.
As for Bill Clinton, he was as politically adept as any president in modern times, and as charismatic and compelling as anyone. But the reality is that these great talents did not convince a single Republican to support his economic plan in 1993, nor enough Democrats to pass the plan for a crucial seven-plus months; did not stop the Republicans under Speaker Newt Gingrich from shutting down the government twice; and did not stop the House toward the end of his presidency from impeaching him on shaky grounds, with no chance of conviction in the Senate. The brief windows of close cooperation in 1996, after Gingrich’s humiliation following the second shutdown, were opened for pragmatic, tactical reasons by Republicans eager to win a second consecutive term in the majority, and ended shortly after they had accomplished that goal.
When Obama had the numbers, not as robust as LBJ’s but robust enough, he had a terrific record of legislative accomplishments. The 111th Congress ranks just below the 89th in terms of significant and far-reaching enactments, from the components of the economic stimulus plan to the health care bill to Dodd/Frank and credit-card reform. But all were done with either no or minimal Republican support. LBJ and Reagan had willing partners from the opposite party; Obama has had none. Nothing that he could have done would have changed the clear, deliberate policy of Republicans uniting to oppose and obstruct his agenda, that altered long-standing Senate norms to use the filibuster in ways it had never been employed before, including in the LBJ, Reagan, and Clinton eras, that drew sharp lines of total opposition on policies like health reform and raising taxes as part of a broad budget deal.
Could Obama have done more to bond with lawmakers? Sure, especially with members of his own party, which would help more now, when he is in the throes of second-term blues, than it would have when he achieved remarkable party unity in his first two years. But the brutal reality, in today’s politics, is that LBJ, if he were here now, could not be the LBJ of the Great Society years in this environment. Nobody can, and to demand otherwise is both futile and foolish.