President Johnson and Joe Califano in the White House. [LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto. #A6022-14]

What Obama can learn from LBJ

Sep 05, 2012

By Joseph A. Califano Jr.

[originally published in the Washington Post on December 8, 2011]

Without Presidential leadership in the trenches, there is no chance that Congress, particularly a divided Congress, will step on the third-rail politics of raising taxes or cutting popular programs such as Medicare, much less deploy the federal government to reduce the number of Americans living in poverty. These are the same folks who haven’t been able to agree on a budget for almost three years.

Washington seems to have lost its sense of social justice and economic responsibility. As political and private-sector leaders nationwide realize that an engaged president is key to progress, many wish that Barack Obama was more like Lyndon B. Johnson. The refrain of many Democrats — and some Republicans — is that at least with LBJ, Washington worked and we got something done.   

Obama will never be like Johnson, but LBJ’s Presidency offers lessons that could help him win a second term and make that term more than another example of Oscar Wilde’s aphorism that the only thing worse than not getting what you want is getting it.

As Obama seeks to straddle the political center, he evidences something of a disdain for his unabashedly liberal predecessor who escalated the Vietnam War. He rarely mentions LBJ or credits the avalanche of Great Society programs that made Johnson the most effective progressive president of the 20th century.

This is ironic, given how Obama has benefited from those programs. Food stamps helped his mother feed the family. The 1965 Higher Education Act (and its progeny) helped pay for Barack and Michelle Obama’s college and law school educations.

Without Johnson’s signature achievements — the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights acts — Obama could never have been elected President. Johnson’s doctrine of affirmative action opened opportunity to millions of African Americans who supported Obama’s candidacy with their wallets as well as their votes. read more

The writer was President Lyndon Johnson’s chief assistant for domestic affairs from 1965 to 1969 and secretary of health, education, and welfare from 1977 to 1979. His e-mail address is jcalifano@casacolumbia.org.