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Obama and the Johnson Legacy: Recollecting the Great Society

Posted on Apr 11, 2014

By G. Thomas Goodnight

(Page 2)

Threats of veto and promise of circumvention are tools presidents use in these battles with Congress; presidential address speaks to broader publics. A national agenda has been rendered more difficult, ironically, by an internally divided Republican Party. Its Main-Street-cum-Wall-Street coalition was exploded by the Bush administration’s failure to achieve agreement on immigration policy, while at the same time setting up the economy for a massive economic bubble and recession.

Republican weakness has resulted in party polarization. Its politicians have less room for getting the work of government done. Fear of losing fights in the primaries reigns. Additionally, Obama has had to work within and against a U.S. Supreme Court reminiscent of the Gilded Age. The Obama national agenda plays out as a cautionary politics, with the exception of medical care.

Nonetheless, the issue of voting rights is not one that can remain understated or ignored. Attorney General Eric Holder undertakes efforts in this direction and endures attacks. Voting rights in jeopardy, attacks on women, court battles over gay marriage—all these issues demand that movement be renewed. The fight now roils at the state and local levels. 

Just as Johnson was able to move Congress by drawing on the resonances of movements, so at election time in 2014 civil rights is an issue that should resonate with all of us. The gaps between citizen and worker should be overcome so there is equal standing, equal pay and equal opportunity. The Great Society reminds us that the gifts of citizenship are not extended to all, still. 


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Further, there now assembles a state and local movement that threatens gains in extending the vote. In Thursday’s speech, Obama pointed out that realization of equality is part of the unfinished American story. Recalling the work of the Johnson administration reminds us that there is no honor in going back.

G. Thomas Goodnight grew up in Texas and has taught at Northwestern University. He presently is a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and studies the history of American public address.

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