I like the ideas set forth in this piece…
Why can’t Barack Obama be more like Lyndon Johnson? The fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, commemorated by living presidents at the LBJ School of Public Affairs in Austin, Texas, last week, has renewed interest in comparisons between the two presidents. Critics of Obama complain that he might have been a more effective president had he been less aloof and more willing to bewitch, bully and bribe members of Congress as Johnson did. Defenders of Obama compare the Affordable Care Act to Johnson’s Medicare and Medicaid, and point out that Obama after 2010 had to face a divided Congress, unlike Johnson, with his Democratic supermajorities.
The discussion is superficial, reflecting a focus on personalities and short-term electoral considerations. It’s worth viewing the differences between Johnson and Obama in a broader historical context.
In the 1930s, as a young member of Congress from Texas, Lyndon Johnson became a favorite protégé of President Franklin Roosevelt. On becoming president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Johnson saw his task in domestic politics as completing the New Deal (even as, in foreign policy, he sought, with disastrous results in Vietnam, to carry out the liberal Cold War containment policy inherited from Harry Truman). From the perspective of 2014, we can view Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society as a single era of reform, interrupted by the “conservative coalition” of right-wing Southern Democrats and northern Republicans that dominated Congress in the 1950s. From civil rights to universal health care, most of the programs that Johnson managed to get enacted in the 1960s had been proposed in the 1930s or 1940s, if not earlier. For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to the New Deal-Great Society combination as “the New Deal.”
The New Deal was the American version of the social reforms that transformed other advanced industrial democracies in the twentieth century. All of the other English-speaking countries as well as the democracies of Western Europe at some point adopted worker-protective legislation, social safety nets and — following World War II and the horrors of Nazi racism — the outlawing of white supremacy. In this wave of twentieth-century reform, the U.S. was mostly a laggard, not a leader. In the late nineteenth century, Imperial Germany pioneered workers’ compensation and Social Security, and before World War I Britain adopted many reforms that were delayed in the U.S. until the 1930s.