Comparing The Powers of Persuasion of President’s Johnson and Obama: On The Civil Rights Act and the Affordable Care Act

April 23rd, 2013

The Times has an interesting piece lamenting President Obama’s inability to twist arms, and exact loyalty from his caucus.

After more than four years in the Oval Office, the president has rarely demonstrated an appetite for ruthless politics that instills fear in lawmakers. That raises a broader question: If he cannot translate the support of 90 percent of the public for background checks into a victory on Capitol Hill, what can he expect to accomplish legislatively for his remaining three and a half years in office?

Interestingly, the article chooses to compare Obama to Johnson, who had a reputation as an arm-twister-extraordinaire.

Robert Dallek, a historian and biographer of President Lyndon B. Johnson, said Mr. Obama seems “inclined to believe that sweet reason is what you need to use with people in high office.” That contrasts with Johnson’s belief that “what you need to do is to back people up against a wall,” Mr. Dallek said.

“Obama has this more reasoned temperament,” he said. “It may well be that it’s not the prescription for making gains. It raises questions about his powers of persuasion.” “President Obama is not Lyndon Johnson, and this is not the 1960s,” said Representative Mike Thompson, a California Democrat and chairman of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. Mr. Johnson had large Democratic majorities in Congress during much of his presidency. “It’s a different time and different people, and everyone has their own way of doing things. This president can be every bit as convincing as any president before him.”

The comparisons to Johnson are interesting.

In the Epilogue to my book, I consider the various vote tallies of landmark pieces of legislation passed in the 20th Century. With the exception of the Affordable Care Act, all of these laws were passed by a bipartisan majority.

Here is an excerpt:

All of the major, landmark, transformational federal laws enacted in the twentieth century were passed with bipartisan support. There was always buy-in from the minority party—support often obtained through messy political compromises and bargaining. The Social Security Act of 1935 was supported by 77 Republicans in the House, who joined 288 Democrats. In the Senate, 15 Republicans joined 60 Democrats. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed the Senate by a vote of 73 in favor and 27 opposed. A bold coalition of 27 Republicans and 44 Democrats united to break a segregationist-led filibuster. The Social Security Amendments of 1965, which created Medicaid and Medicare, passed the House by a vote of 307–116, with 70 Republicans voting in favor. This monumental health care legislation cleared the Senate by a vote of 70–24; 13 Republicans crossed the aisle. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 was passed with broad bipartisan support; the Voting Rights Act of 1968 gained bipartisan support. In 1990 the Americans with Disabilities Act passed with 90 percent agreement in the House and Senate. The absence of any consensus for the Affordable Care Act in 2009 was remarkable, and proved to be a very inauspicious start.

I’m pleased that my comparison about Obama and Johnson are resonating well with the current political landscape. As I noted in my book, the comparisons are even more stark when you consider the nature of the laws being passed by Johnson and Obama.

Let’s put this in context. President Lyndon B. Johnson was able to get more former segregationists to vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1968 than President Obama was able to get moderate Republicans to vote for the Affordable Care Act. Legislation is indeed always a compromise, especially in a state of gridlock exacerbated by recalcitrant Republicans. However, the president and leaders in the Congress forced this law thorough with full knowledge that there would be no bipartisan support and that they would lose members of their own caucus.

In his second term, the President simply lacks the power to pass anything along a party-line vote (put aside for a moment the issue of the filibuster–the Democrats dare not abolish it for they soon may be in the minority and do not want relinquish the power). He will need to seek compromise. But as evidenced by the recent gun vote, he can’t even keep his own caucus in line.