AUSTIN, Texas — President Obama has tried to model Abraham Lincoln’s team of rivals and Teddy Roosevelt’s power of the bully pulpit. He’s lauded Ronald Reagan’s communication skills and linked himself to the Kennedy clan. He’s praised his onetime nemesis, George W. Bush, as well as his onetime adversary, Bill Clinton.
But Obama has rarely cozied up to the predecessor some argue did more than any other modern president to pave the way for his election as the nation’s first black president: Lyndon B. Johnson.
Five years into his presidency, Obama will head to Austin on Thursday to remedy what some Johnson admirers have described as a “pattern of omission.” At a ceremony at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, Obama will honor Johnson and the Civil Rights Act, signed 50 years ago this year.
But it is other elements of Johnson’s legacy that have confounded and irked the Obama White House. As a president who tried to end two wars, Obama was not inclined to align himself with a president who escalated the Vietnam War.
More recently, any mention of Johnson and Obama in the same sentence is typically a comparison of their legislative prowess — and Obama comes up short. In the age of partisan gridlock, the master of the Senate, as Johnson became known during his time as majority leader, has become for many Democrats an example of how a president once used government to do big things. By comparison, the current president has become a symbol of how little government can get done.
But the story of Obama’s and Johnson’s legislative records is more complex — and with a more similar arc than sometimes described. Both passed sweeping legislation in short order, taking advantage of early political momentum, mindful, in Johnson’s words, that a newly elected president is “a giraffe; six months later, he’s a worm.”
Both also faced great frustrations and backlash in later years. And like Johnson, Obama hopes history will prove his earliest major legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, to be his most widely embraced.
For now, the White House is quick to note the many differences between the two presidents and their times.
Most obviously, Johnson benefited from large Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress when he pushed the Civil Rights Act, even as the country mourned John F. Kennedy. Those majorities jumped — to a whooping 295-140 in the House — after the 1964 election. When Obama passed his healthcare overhaul in 2010, Democrats had 253 seats.
But Johnson also embraced the sort of parliamentary maneuvers and horse trading that today would have good government advocates screaming about legislative payoffs and backdoor politics. And thinking Obama could wine and dine his way to moving his legislative agenda is to misunderstand the current political climate, White House aides argue. Political polarization has diminished common ground between the parties and left few moderates to woo.
Even Obama seems to chalk up Johnson’s success to political momentum, noting that his election in 1964 was followed in 1966 by Democratic losses in the congressional elections, although the party retained control of Congress. Obama has faced a Republican majority in the House since 2011.
“When he lost that historic majority, and the glow of that landslide victory faded, he had the same problems with Congress that most presidents at one point or another have,” Obama said in a recent interview with the New Yorker.
For those close to the Johnson legacy, attributing his legislative accomplishments to mere political good fortune ignores Johnson’s political gift.
“Schmoozing is not just sitting and having a drink — though LBJ did plenty of that,” said Joseph Califano Jr., a former Johnson aide. “It’s knowing exactly what buttons turn congressmen on and off. I think, bluntly put, Johnson knew the price of every member of Congress — whether it was a dam or a schoolhouse or invitation to dinner.”
Califano noted, “Obama has other skills, but that was a big one for Johnson.”
Mark K. Updegrove, a historian and director of the Johnson library, noted that Johnson was willing to alienate his old friend and mentor Sen. Richard Russell, a fierce opponent of the civil rights legislation. Russell, a Georgia Democrat, warned that he’d risk losing the presidency and also the defection of Southern states to the GOP.
“LBJ said that, if that was the price for the bill, he’d gladly pay it,” said Updegrove, author of three books on the presidency, including one on Johnson. “He said, ‘What the hell is the presidency for?’”
That’s a question Obama faces regularly in his fifth year, as he uses his executive authority to move his priorities, including environmental regulation, increasing minimum wage and, this week, closing the gender pay gap.
H.W. Brands, a presidential historian at the University of Texas in Austin, said Obama could not count on the same kind of powerful social movement and growing consensus that benefited Johnson in passing civil and voting rights bills. “The issues are less clear-cut today and the parties are more clearly at odds,” he said.
Even Johnson saw the limits of his powers of persuasion. After the 1966 midterm election, Johnson came to feel a backlash from lawmakers he had won over, particularly when it came to paying for the Great Society programs.
But Johnson’s agenda was cemented into American life. Medicare, passed in 1965, was quickly accepted by the opposition, implemented successfully by the administration and, over time, embraced by both parties — along with the Civil Rights Act.
Despite that, Johnson’s legacy has often been overshadowed by the Vietnam War. Thursday’s event, and Obama’s remarks, were anticipated by those who have sought recognition for LBJ’s domestic achievements.
“Every family wants to have their loved ones get the credit they believe they deserve. But I grew up in politics. I know that doesn’t happen when you want it to, as you want it to; that’s part of life,” said Luci Baines Johnson, the president’s daughter. “Whatever has happened in the past and people have not focused on Lyndon Johnson, I’m just so glad they are now.”