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07.20.09

Doris Kearns Goodwin on Obama's 'Johnson Moment'

As Barack Obama aims to turn his presidency from the bully pulpit to bullying Congress on health care, White House aides have found in President Lyndon Baines Johnson the historical example of how a president should behave. Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who served as a White House fellow during the Johnson administration and assisted LBJ with his memoirs, tells The Daily Beast that Obama will need to find his 'Johnson moment.'

As Barack Obama aims to turn his presidency from the bully pulpit to bullying Congress on health care, White House aides have found in President Lyndon Baines Johnson the historical example of how a president should behave. Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who served as a White House fellow during the Johnson administration and assisted LBJ with his memoirs, tells The Daily Beast that Obama will need to find his "Johnson moment."

[Johnson] often said that Congress had to be with you on the takeoff so they'd be with you on the landing. That philosophy Obama followed in giving Congress a leadership role in drafting the health care bill. After the debacle of the Clinton administration's secret task force it made double sense. And add to that the understanding that Democrats on the Hill have been waiting for years for their moment in the sun.

LBJ also understood that the president was the ultimate weapon and thus had to be held in reserve until the moment was right, but this is the critical moment we are at today. This is the moment, LBJ would suggest, when the president has to take charge, to draw lines, to pressure, to threaten, to cajole, to exert every resource of leadership he has—to put pressure on wavering Democrats to make it clear that losing health care will be a huge blow not only to him but to all Democrats who were brought into office on the promise of big change, and particularly on health care.

LBJ used to have big charts where he could know which congressman or senator he needed to call at every instant. He would then invite them to breakfast, cocktails, call them at any hour of the day or night. He called one senator at 3 a.m. and said to the senator, 'I hope I didn't wake you up,' and the senator replied, 'Oh no, I was just lying here hoping my president would call.' So this is the moment for Obama to mobilize his troops in the field, to play hard ball, to do whatever it takes to get a bill passed. LBJ once said it was fine if final votes were razor thin, even with big majorities in the Congress, for that meant he had secured the maximum provisions he wanted, rather than compromising too early and too much.

—Doris Kearns Goodwin

Xtra Insight: The Daily Beast's Samuel P. Jacobs: Can LBJ Help Obama Pass Health Care?