Obama Must Take a Page from LBJ’s Leadership Book
Posted at 3 p.m. on June 11, 2013
Guess who wrote this:
“This Congress has gone further than any other within memory to replace debate and decision by delay and stultification.
“This is one of those moments when there is reason to wonder whether the Congressional system as it now operates is not a grave danger to the Republic.”
It’s not a contemporary critic lamenting the inability of today’s Congress and the Obama administration to solve any of America’s great problems or even process budgets, appropriations and nominations.
The words were written in 1963 by the celebrated columnist Walter Lippmann about the fact that the Southern Democrat-conservative Republican rulers of Congress wouldn’t even consider President John F. Kennedy’s agenda — civil rights, a tax cut bill, school construction, foreign aid or even routine appropriations.
The point of quoting Lippmann isn’t to show that we’ve been in a logjam before.
The point is that the logjam was broken through presidential leadership — that of Lyndon B. Johnson.
As described in Robert Caro’s latest volume on Johnson, “The Passage of Power,” within months of Kennedy’s assassination, LBJ had pushed through the entire Kennedy agenda, declared war on poverty and assured his nomination and triumphant 1964 re-election.
The sad lesson I draw from Caro’s book — magnificently written, a riveting read for everyone interested in politics — is that President Barack Obama simply doesn’t measure up as a leader and likely never will.
And the corollary is that in 2016, we should be looking for a president who can lead.
Johnson didn’t get the Kennedy program passed on the strength of sympathy for the dead president. Conservative senators such as Richard Russell, D-Ga., Harry Byrd, D-Va., and Karl Mundt, R-S.D., and House Rules Chairman Howard Smith, D-Va., may have mourned, but they were not inclined to relent.
As Caro describes it, though Johnson as majority leader had been “Master of the Senate” (the title of Caro’s previous great book), Kennedy and his entourage humiliated him as vice president and failed to heed his legislative advice.
So Kennedy played into the hands of the conservative coalition by putting his civil rights bill in the legislative line ahead of other measures.
The Southern tactic, used again and again, was to filibuster civil rights bills and delay all other legislation till, at the end of a Congress, even liberals called for civil rights to be pulled from the floor to get bills passed that their constituents demanded.
Caro makes it clear — as he has in all his Johnson books — that Johnson was a personal scoundrel. He stole elections, habitually lied, abused his staff, sucked up to the powerful, leveraged his connections to get rich (often illegally) and used any and all agencies of government (including the IRS) to intimidate opponents.
But that’s beside the point as a lesson in presidential leadership. Johnson got the Kennedy program through Congress because he knew the Hill in his bones — Obama spent only four years there — and was willing to spend endless hours personally cajoling, flattering, pleading and horse-trading with those who could help him get his way.
As I’ve written previously, Obama has spent little time in intimate conversation or social interaction with members, especially Republicans. To the extent he has, it’s been on-again, off-again. He’s frequently written off his adversaries as incapable of persuasion. LBJ never took “no” for an answer.
You can say, OK, LBJ could do it because he’d spent 24 years in Congress, had wooed and made common cause with the conservative powers, understood legislative strategy through and through and knew how to get his way.
All true, and vividly detailed by Caro. On the other hand, who said this?
“What you see too often in Washington … is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath, by one unyielding group or another. … Often, you see paralysis and stagnation and drift.”
Those aren’t the words from a recent editorial, either.
They are from President Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “malaise” speech, delivered at a time of high inflation, high unemployment, gas lines and congressional gridlock on energy — despite the fact that his Democratic party had the majority in both Houses.
Carter, a novice in Washington who couldn’t lead, was succeeded by another Washington novice who could — Ronald Reagan.
In 1981, with a Republican Senate and a Democratic House, he pushed through an economic plan that ultimately produced one of the great booms of American history.
He wasn’t afraid to dicker with opposition leaders such as Speaker Tip O’Neill, D-Mass., but the key to his leadership was the ability to go on television and mobilize the public to put pressure on Congress.
Alas, Obama tries to do things that way, but can’t get through. Maybe it’s harder now than it was for LBJ and Reagan, with lines more rigidly drawn.
But what it will take to get the country’s problems solved is presidential leadership we aren’t getting now. Let’s hope we do better next time.