Mandel Ngan / AP

Obama, GOP leaders should take page from LBJ playbook

If they really want to work together, it's time to parley

January 30, 2015 2:00AM ET

“I know that there are Republicans in Congress who disagree with my approach,” President Barack Obama said in his Saturday address after the State of the Union message to Congress and the rest of the nation. The next day, his comment was reaffirmed.

In a joint interview on that Sunday’s “60 Minutes,” the two leaders of the Republican majorities in the 114th Congress, the Senate’s Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and the House’s John Boehner of Ohio, spoke up loudly in order to turn aside Obama’s wish list of expanding child care, employee medical leave and education as well as raising taxes on wealthy investors and middle-class savers.

“Dead, real dead,” Boehner said of Obama’s plans.

This unbending contest of wills between both parties and the executive and legislative branches has become familiar, but it need not remain a stalemate forever. Obama, Boehner and McConnell have at hand the history of adamant congressional factions working toward groundbreaking legislation even in extremely hostile political environments.

Nothing in 2015 matches the anger, fear and anarchic threat of 1964 when President Lyndon Baines Johnson inherited from the slain President John F. Kennedy a deeply reactionary and even defeatist 88th Congress. Yet within one year, Johnson and the leaders of both parties had moved Washington to pass historic legislation on civil rights, poverty and education. They produced a mountain of bills while cutting everyone’s taxes, reducing federal spending, shrinking the deficit and laying the foundation that America’s generosity sits atop today.

Starting with Johnson’s first State of the Union address, Jan. 8, 1964, the immediate struggle was over taxes and spending, I learned from a spirited, persuasive new telling by Princeton professor Julian E. Zelizer, “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society.”

Johnson battled his own party’s masterminds, House Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills of Arkansas and Senate Finance Chairman Robert Byrd of West Virginia, both of whom held that cutting taxes (the top rate was 91 percent) would balloon the deficit. Yet by mid-February, Johnson had delivered a bargain basement budget for fiscal 1965 at $97.9 billion, about the same as President Dwight David Eisenhower’s 1961 budget. In exchange, the fiscally conservative Congress agreed to Johnson’s ambitions for the Revenue Act of 1964, which dramatically lowered corporate and personal tax rates for the next three years and accelerated growth.

The same give-and-take formula is available today to the Obama administration in dealing with Republican leaders. Instead of choosing to raise taxes to pay for programs, the president could follow LBJ’s lead and reduce margin rates in exchange for support for Obama’s wish list of programs for the middle class, such as expanding child care and education.

Johnson’s 1964 wish list of social legislation dwarfed any dream of domestic programs imaginable in today’s Washington. His ambition also had to confront the intractable congressional powers of the 20th century.

‘The president was looking out at an audience that had 80 more Republicans in it than his first State of the Union.’

Mitch McConnell

Senate majority leader

With the boost of the tax cut, Johnson confronted the darkest forces in both parties on civil rights. It was an election year, yet Johnson could see that the segregationist Southern Democrats and their Republican allies were prepared to resist, no matter the advantage that a defeat would hand the GOP. 

Sen. Russell Long of Georgia led 18 Democrats and six Republicans in the longest filibuster in the history of the Senate, from March 30 to June 10. Meanwhile, Johnson launched himself on a national poverty tour of 30 speeches. The polls slowly turned against the filibuster and for cloture in the Senate, which in those days required 67 “aye” votes. Using the power of the Oval Office, Johnson handed out sizable rewards to undecided holdouts, such as a water project for Sen. Carl Hayden of Arizona.

The endgame had LBJ and the Senate’s liberal leader, Majority Whip Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, negotiating with GOP Minority Leader Edward Dirksen of Illinois over the powers given the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Johnson was explicit that he must have Republican support for the final bill, “So we’ve got to make this an American bill and not just a Democratic one.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed the Senate and House healthily and was signed into law on July 2, 1964. 

It did not establish sufficient authority to reverse centuries of abuse, but it was a giant step in the right direction. It represented a model for how to engage several competing regional and philosophical factions at once. The liberal victors of both parties used the momentum of July to passing education reform for the impoverished in the Economic Opportunity Act in August. 

Johnson’s success with Congress not only established him as an overwhelming favorite against Republican presidential candidate Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, who opposed the civil rights and education bills, but also created fertile ground for overwhelming victory by Democratic liberals in the November elections. The victory gave Johnson a mandate to combat the tragedy of the crackdown on civil rights protesters in Selma, Alabama, in March 1965 (retold in Ava DuVernay’s controversial film “Selma”) with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. John used the same strength to create the bipartisan Great Society legislation of 1965 and 1966, such as Medicare.

Johnson’s risk-taking style of combating entrenched Southern Democrats while engaging skeptical Northern Republicans and mollifying impatient liberals of both parties is a model that would work just as well with the potent conservative and liberal factions in the 114th Congress as it did with the 88th and 89th Congress.

Obama has said of the Republicans, “I look forward to hearing their ideas for how we can pay for what the middle class needs to grow.”

There is no indication, however, that the president is planning to sit down to parley.

“My first thought was it sounded like he was running for a third term,” an impatient McConnell said of Obama's State of the Union address. “He seemed to have completely forgotten or chose to ignore the election last November. He was looking out at an audience that had 80 more Republicans in it than his first State of the Union.”

A cautious Boehner said during the same segment, “You know, the president could have, with the State of the Union, just put out an olive branch, could’ve taken just a little bit different tone that would’ve indicated to us that there’s some interest in working with us. I can tell you, we’re interested in working with him.”

Obama has plenty of time before the 2016 presidential electioneering takes over the news to employ some of Johnson’s tools of persuasion. At the least, Obama can get the GOP leaders to show their cards to determine if the hand they hold is a bluff.

John Batchelor is a novelist and host of a national radio news show based in New York City.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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