Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Obama could learn from Lyndon Johnson

I have a recommendation for President Obama's reading list. It is volume four of Robert Caro's expansive biography of Lyndon Johnson. "The Passage of Power" covers the years from 1958, when Johnson began quietly seeking the 1960 presidential nomination, to months after the Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy assassination.

The part Obama should pay close attention to are the pages and pages about how Johnson managed a legislative miracle after he assumed the presidency. President Kennedy's legislative agenda had languished in Congress after the president and his advisers ignored the advice of Johnson, the most skilled and powerful Senate majority leader of the century. Johnson had warned Kennedy's people not to send up the president's landmark civil rights bill until the budget had passed. Johnson knew, but Kennedy's less-experienced advisers never realized, that opponents of the civil rights bill would use the budget as a tool to hold the civil rights bill hostage. The budget had to pass (budgeting was more honest in those days), but the civil rights bill didn't.

When Johnson became president, he used his skills of flattery and persuasion to line up the votes to pass the budget, get it out of the way and move on to the civil rights bill, which he also got passed by his powers of persuasion. Getting what he wanted out of Congress meant he had to suck up to powerful senators such as Dick Russell of Georgia and Richard Byrd of Virginia. He had been sucking up to powerful men for decades; he was willing to do whatever it took to get what he wanted. Johnson spent little time trying to persuade the public that the civil rights bill should pass. He knew that there were only 100 men (no women in the Senate back then) who had a vote on the bill, plus 435 members of the House. He concentrated on finding those 51 votes in the Senate and 218 votes in the House. He appealed, he pleaded, he squeezed, he twisted arms, he promised favors, he did favors, he did anything and everything needed to secure those votes on Capitol Hill.

President Obama has sought to win passage of a gun bill by making speeches and holding news conferences aimed at the American public. He's done a good job of persuading millions of people who don't have a vote on the legislation — some polls say 90 percent of the public favors stricter gun purchase rules — but he has failed so far in getting the votes he needs on Capitol Hill. Lyndon Johnson, who Caro shows repeatedly in his first four volumes (I've read them all), is not a particularly admirable character. But he was a master legislator, perhaps the most successful in U.S. history. He knew where the votes were; he knew how to count them; he knew how to hold senators to their promises. President Obama might learn from that kind of success.

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