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Obama and the Johnson Legacy: Recollecting the Great Society

President Barack Obama speaks at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, on Thursday during the Civil Rights Summit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act. AP/Carolyn Kaster

By G. Thomas Goodnight

President Obama appeared in Austin, Texas, on Thursday night to deliver that rarest of speeches: a tribute to a former president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose administration still remains in controversy. We meet “deep in the heart of the state that shaped him,” Obama observed, recalling “one giant man’s remarkable efforts to make real the promise of our founding: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ ” Out of Johnson’s poverty-ridden, hill country life arose a moral imagination that envisioned and drove his reach toward the Great Society. Such were LBJ’s vast ambitions, the president marveled.

Elections transfer power. Politics pass. Administrations come and go — but disputes never end. Once constituted, national debates are sustained by historians who assess and rank outcomes of administrations.

Citizens, on the other hand, are more active. We discuss the repeal, extension or renewal of legislation enacted, foregone or vetoed. The Great Society constituted a memorable national debate. President Johnson’s policies constituted a movement not from the outside in — although the civil rights movement was gathering. Rather, Johnson mobilized the power of the state to act in the interest of civil rights and social justice.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 dismantled the formal traces of an American apartheid, the leftover remnants of Jim Crow. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 guaranteed that future political comprises could not wink back in post-Civil-War structures of bondage that substituted for slavery. Johnson went further too, addressing immigration, housing and health care.

Presidential initiatives were dressed with legislative success, but they also left an enduring political target. Just as the New Deal became the bête noire of conservative thinkers who inspired Republican rhetoric for generations, so the Great Society became a remaindered question.

“Government is the problem, not the solution,” we hear constantly. Such bromides, oddly enough, are uttered by politicians who raise funds, pass legislation and always bring home the bacon.

Presidential movements during times of national stress are not business as usual. Smart presidents use the power of office. Actions feed reactions. Just as the Great Depression became the spawning ground for radical right-wing views supported by monetary interests at the time, so too the Great Recession has become a popular space for donations that support angry messages that misarrange cause and effect, problem and solution. Thus outrage becomes substituted for commitment, cynicism for sympathy, withdrawal for thoughtful advocacy. Simulated populist rage becomes again an avenue for power.

Rage can turn, however. The Republican Party itself appears in disarray. Anger and fear are its unifying feature. Ever greater opposition is demanded: derricking government budgets, appointments and discussions — and proving to the public that government indeed does not work. The politics of the 1960s were driven from the president’s office with an overall more positive tenor.

Obama chose to praise Johnson with frankness, acknowledging the political hunger that drove the Texan, his rather harsh arm-twisting tactics and his belated transcendence of Southern reluctance. “He could horse trade and he could flatter,” Obama reminisced with a smile, reminding us how much LBJ dearly loved the game and how he exercised, sometimes coarsely, his genius for influence.

Still, it was because of Johnson’s imagination and ambition that a new politics could rise, Obama maintained. Johnson liked power. He loved the feel of it, the wielding of rule. “But that hunger was harnessed and redeemed by a deeper understanding of the human condition; by a sympathy for the underdog, for the downtrodden, for the outcast. And it was a sympathy rooted in his own experience,” Obama explained. LBJ’s imagination extended broadly across the rural and urban poor, older and younger Americans and, indeed, to any denied opportunity. Obama found in this imagination a legacy and a gift, a platform for politics based on the injunction to reject “cynicism” and to continue the struggle. Partial and “half-a-loaf” as American politics remain, progress is still the story, the president said. The courage to commit and go forward remains our mandate.

Interestingly, Obama’s stance seemed to resonate most with the audience when he twice praised Johnson’s commitment to health care for the elderly. The audience gathered at the LBJ library likely read both presidents’ struggles together, similar efforts to extend protection to vulnerable populations.

Of course, the Obama administration is positioned like Johnson’s only in incidental ways. Rather, presidential politics presently occupy a context more similar to Richard Nixon’s first administration. Nixon had to compromise his right-wing thinking in order to co-opt progressive reform and retard the outcomes of civil unrest in the United States — part of his famous “Southern Strategy.” Similarly, Obama has had to wind down wars in a manner that would not raise right-wing hackles, while at the same time resisting conservative efforts to undo his own legislation and flatten active roles for the federal government.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.

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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