Signing of the Medicare Bill - July 30, 1965. [LBJ Library photo by Unknown]

Obama, Johnson, and Congress

Sep 24, 2013

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. read more