Obama, Johnson, and Congress
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
LBJ shepherded vast amounts of major legislation through Congress; President Obama has seen most of his initiatives stymied. What explains this difference?
Lyndon Johnson was president of the United States for five years and two months. In that time, he pushed no fewer than 23 major pieces of legislation through Congress. Many of them — including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act, the Food Stamp Act, the Urban Mass Transportation Act, the Higher Education Act, the Freedom of Information Act, the Public Broadcasting Act, Medicare, and Medicaid — were among the most significant and contentious legislative acts of the 20th century.
By way of contrast, Barack Obama has been president for four years and eight months, and in that time has gotten only a handful of major pieces of legislation enacted into law. Although the point is arguable, perhaps only two — the stimulus bill and Obamacare — could be considered in league with LBJ’s major accomplishments. Nothing of consequence has passed Congress in more than three years.
So why was Lyndon Johnson so successful at bending Congress to his will while Barack Obama has been singularly unsuccessful?
To be sure, Johnson’s party had comfortable majorities in both houses of Congress throughout his tenure and Obama has faced a Republican-controlled House since his first midterm election. And Johnson had spent more than 20 years in Congress — in both the House and Senate — and had served as majority leader of the latter for five years. He was intimately familiar with Congress’s ways. Obama spent barely two years in the Senate before beginning to campaign for the presidency full time and was associated with no major piece of legislation.
Still, the disparity is striking. Obama campaigned as a “transformative” and “post-partisan” candidate and has had considerable mainstream media support throughout his tenure.
An anecdote, perhaps, can begin to explain the difference between the two presidents.
Lyndon Johnson once invited a group of freshman congressmen down to the White House in order to lobby them on a bill he wanted passed. Being freshmen, most of them had never been in the Oval Office before and as they filed in they began gawking around at one of the world’s most famous rooms.
Johnson made a point of knowing whatever there was to know about individual members of Congress, their quirks and prejudices, their weaknesses and strengths.
“Take a good look around,” Johnson told them with a smile, “because if you’re not with me on this bill, you’ll never see this room again.” This was typical of Johnson’s approach to dealing with Congress. He made a point of knowing whatever there was to know about individual members of Congress, their quirks and prejudices, their weaknesses and strengths. He knew that freshman House members, most just starting their political careers, relished the proximity to power represented by an Oval Office visit.
A naturally gregarious man, he was also an overwhelming physical presence. At 6 feet 3 inches, Johnson is among the tallest of modern presidents.
He used his knowledge of individual representatives and senators in order to convince them to vote his way. And he lobbied them hard. He would spend hours a day, in person and on the phone, lining up his congressional troops in order to pass his ambitious legislative agenda.
This approach came to be called “The Treatment.” As longtime Washington columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak described it:
Its tone could be supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint, and the hint of threat. It was all of these together. It ran the gamut of human emotions. Its velocity was breathtaking, and it was all in one direction. Interjections from the target were rare. Johnson anticipated them before they could be spoken. He moved in close, his face a scant millimeter from his target, his eyes widening and narrowing, his eyebrows rising and falling. From his pockets poured clippings, memos, statistics. Mimicry, humor, and the genius of analogy made The Treatment an almost hypnotic experience and rendered the target stunned and helpless.
As a result, no president since Johnson’s hero Franklin Roosevelt has had as much success in getting controversial legislation through the often balky legislative branch, where each of the 535 members has his or her own political interests and sensitivities. Getting majorities assembled in Congress is like herding cats, and Lyndon Johnson was the master of cat herding.
Barack Obama does not herd cats well. In fact, he doesn’t even try. He is a rather remote figure who obviously does not relish the give-and-take bargaining, the flattery and log-rolling, and the personal interaction that is the essence of how laws are passed in a democracy. Instead, he often seems to treat members of Congress the way a professor (as he used to be) often treats his students. That does not go down well with legislators, most of whom have fully functional egos.
And instead of being the leader in constructing legislation, which would allow him to be in a dominant bargaining position, he has usually allowed Congress to write the specifics. The result, with both the stimulus bill and Obamacare, has been remarkably sloppy and unclear laws.
Obama often seems to treat members of Congress the way a professor (as he used to be) often treats his students. That does not go down well with legislators, most of whom have fully functional egos. Even worse, Obama makes no attempt whatsoever to hide his utter contempt for Republicans in public.
If Obama stays at arm’s length from congressional Democrats, it is hardly surprising that he is even more distant with the Republicans. Obama was a year and a half into his presidency before he had a one-on-one conversation with Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader in the Senate.
Ronald Reagan, in contrast, also faced a House held by the other party. But he invited Tip O’Neill, the Democratic speaker of the House, to almost-weekly White House chats, and despite deep political differences, they developed a real rapport. That proved an immeasurable asset in getting Reagan’s agenda through Congress.
Even worse, Obama makes no attempt whatsoever to hide his utter contempt for Republicans in public. For instance, at his press conference in early August, he said, “The one unifying principle in the Republican Party at the moment is making sure that 30 million people don’t have health care . . .”
Presidents, at least since George Washington, have always been partisan, but most have almost always stayed above the fray personally. The famously combative Richard Nixon allowed Vice President Spiro Agnew to call liberals such epithets as “Nattering nabobs of negativism,” but didn’t use insults himself, at least in public. Obama does regularly. Again, that is no way to get Republicans to go along with his agenda. Both the stimulus bill and Obamacare passed without a single Republican vote in either house.
Now, with both the end of the fiscal year looming in a week and the limit on borrowing being reached not long after, Obama needs Congress to pass a continuing resolution so that the government can continue to operate and to increase the debt ceiling so that it can continue to finance deficits. Since Republicans have a comfortable majority in the House, they naturally expect to have their political interests listened to and, at least to some extent, accommodated. Obama’s response is to say, “I will not negotiate,” and to insult Republicans, in so many words, as unpatriotic, greedy, and selfish.
But politics in a democratic form of government is negotiation. Each side demands the moon and the stars, threatens no end of disaster if it doesn’t get its way, and then settles for a deal in which both sides get something or, when the differences just can’t be split, the bill fails.
In this case, though, the bills can’t fail. Government must operate and the bills must be paid. Insisting on unconditional surrender worked when our enemies in World War II had lost all ability to fight (and even then the Japanese were allowed to keep their emperor). Will it work now with an infuriated and by no means powerless GOP? We’ll see soon enough.
John Steele Gordon has written several books on business and financial history, the latest of which is the revised edition of Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt.
FURTHER READING: Gordon also writes “How Bureaucrats Captured Government,” “The Uses of Scandal,” and “Debt and the Constitution.” Michael Barone contributes “Democrats No Longer Following Obama's Agenda” and “What Obama Could Learn from FDR.” Charles Murray writes “Of Presidents and Duty” while James V. Delong explores “America’s Crisis of Political Legitimacy.”
Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group