Obama and LBJ

Following President Barack Obama’s speech on health care, pundits have compared his performance to that of President Harry “give ’em hell” Truman. Following his election they compared him to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. But for the upcoming health care battle, Obama needs to step into the shoes of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. For LBJ’s brawling, southern style of trench politics is best suited for Obama’s challenge, especially when it comes to lining up votes from recalcitrant members of his own party.

LBJ is one of America’s most underrated presidents. He was president during most of the 1960s, one of the most tumultuous decades in modern US history. The nation was torn by race riots and a deadly struggle for basic civil rights on behalf of its racial minorities. Despite backward attitudes and stubbornly discriminatory institutions, this hardnosed southerner was able to deliver more on the nation’s urgent civil rights agenda than his predecessor John Kennedy, an Irish Catholic from Massachusetts, ever could have done.

Stories of LBJ’s toughness are legendary. He was willing to twist arms and step on toes of his narrowly tribal colleagues in the South. He knew how to stare down some of his former Senate associates, calling them into his office, rolling up his sleeves, poking them in the chest and getting nose to nose, eyeball to eyeball. He could curse, bully and hound like a red neck thug when he needed to.

But he could sweet-talk and horse-trade too, as well as log-roll, pork barrel and use all the tools of legal bribery and persuasion that a president possesses. It wasn’t pretty, but it sure was effective. LBJ got the job done by having a clear compass on what could be bargained away while still maintaining his objectives. And what resulted was the greatest civil rights legislation since the abolition of slavery — The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — which significantly reduced discrimination and started America down a path that ultimately led to the election of the first black president.

Obama needs to let the Blue Dog Democrats like Senators Max Baucus, Ben Nelson and Kent Conrad know who is in charge. Besides channeling his internal LBJ, if necessary, Obama needs to tear a page from the playbook of two other southerners who knew how to put on the brass knuckles. Former GOP operatives Karl Rove and Tom Delay made it clear that any Republican representatives who crossed their agenda would face a well-funded conservative opponent in their next party primary. That sent a shiver through the ranks, and the back benchers fell in line.

Obama should let any Democratic foot-draggers know that if they don’t get with the program, he will un-elect them and put in Democrats more in tune with his priorities. His threat would be credible, since Obama is one of the great campaigners of modern political history. He still enjoys popularity — though itis dwindling — among the broad coalition that mobilized to elect him. Obama could convincingly threaten to fund candidates to run against uncooperative Senators in the Democratic primary, and to campaign on behalf of his slate of candidates.

But to make that threat, Obama has to mean it. He has to show a quality that the nation has not seen in him since the presidential election ended last November. Some glimpses of it were present in his powerful health care speech, but now he needs to show that a new LBJ is in town.

Lyndon Johnson made mistakes — the escalation in Vietnam being his gravest (Obama take note) — but more than any president in the last half century he passed landmark legislation that remade this country into a better place. And he did it fighting against the same barriers that Obama now faces — outdated attitudes, fear of change and vested interests defending the status quo, not only across the nation but within the Senate, and indeed within his own party.

Like civil rights in the 1960s, health care reform is one of the defining policy debates of our time and will set the stage for the next generation. The United States remains the only advanced economy that has failed to figure out how to provide affordable health care for all of its people. To win this battle, Obama needs to retire the photos of Lincoln and FDR into his desk drawer in the Oval Office, and hang on his wall a large portrait of President Lyndon Baines Johnson — the Texas brawler who knew how to drag his former Senate colleagues across the finish line.

Steven Hill is director of the Political Reform Program of the New America Foundation and author of 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy.

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