Can LBJ Help Obama Pass Health Care?

The nation's governors have joined the chorus of criticism on Obama's health-care plan, just as the administration has gone from comparing the president to Lincoln to likening him to LBJ. It's an odd move—and one that could backfire for Obama.

Plus, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who helped LBJ on his memoirs, on the Obama-Johnson comparison.

President Barack Obama’s vow to pass a health-care overhaul in 2009 just got tougher. The resistance to his plan has spread from Capitol Hill to the nation’s governors, many of whom emerged from a meeting Sunday grumbling over the possibility that costs would be passed from the federal government to the states.

It’s an odd time, then, for the administration to go from comparing Obama to Abraham Lincoln to likening him to Lyndon Johnson.

“How much knowledge does Obama have of the people that he’s got to get to go along?” Kotz asked. “I really don’t know. Obviously not anywhere near as much as LBJ had.”

Last week, Harry McPherson, Johnson’s special counsel and his legislative assistant during his tenure as Senate majority leader, was shocked to read, in The Washington Post: “On Health-Care Reform, Obama Looks to the LBJ Model.”

McPherson, who has worked in Washington for a half-century, “was flabbergasted,” he told The Daily Beast. Because Johnson’s reputation remains anchored in the failures of Vietnam, his name hasn’t been one that any Democratic leader wants next to his or her own.

But Johnson seems to be very much on the minds of White House aides. Nancy-Ann DeParle, who is responsible for the administration’s health-care agenda, keeps a quotation from LBJ under the glass that covers her desk. (“There is but one way for a president to deal with the Congress, and that is continuously, incessantly, and without interruption.”) David Axelrod, White House senior adviser, told the Post that Obama’s sense of vision and “great appreciation” for legislative practices echo Johnson’s own abilities.

According to McPherson, Johnson’s accomplishments, his ability to push through major initiatives from civil rights and voting rights to Medicare and Medicaid, make him an ideal example for the Obama White House.

“Johnson is the only model,” McPherson said, “but they are very different cats.”

That’s where the trouble may begin for Obama. While his administration sets out to demonstrate that it can work Congress like Johnson once masterfully did, Obama’s limitations begin to appear. By seeking to highlight the ways that Obama is like LBJ, White House aides may end up demonstrating how he different he is.

Obama has risen through his ability to move a crowd like few modern politicians. Johnson rose to the nation’s highest office through his ability to move a room of politicians like few others. The key to Johnson’s success was his capacity for understanding the nuances of Congress, knowing what buttons to push to make members of both houses step in line. Obama, so far, has received the most praise for his ability on stage, not in the backroom.

“Johnson knew the strengths and weaknesses of every member of the Congress,” said Nick Kotz, author of Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws that Changed America. “He knew their personal vanities, and he knew what their congressional districts needed—how he could help them or withhold his help.”

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Obama reached the White House through the Senate but his experience there and his understanding of its quirks in no way rivals Johnson’s feeling for Capitol Hill. During Johnson’s years in office, McPherson said, legislation was “oiled over an awful lot of drinks” with Democrats and Republicans alike. Obama, he said, “lacks the background” in Congress, “particularly on the Republican side.”

“How much knowledge does Obama have of the people that he’s got to get to go along?” Kotz asked. “I really don’t know. Obviously not anywhere near as much as LBJ had.”

Beyond the legislative inexperience, McPherson said, Obama has an agenda that may feel unfamiliar to the American people: “One thing that is different is that what Johnson had to work with was an agenda that the country and the policy elements of the country knew a lot about, stuff that had been on the table since the 1948 platform.”

“A lot of the things that Obama is talking to us about are works in progress that we as citizens do not understand.”

For this reason, McPherson said he believes the administration is taking on too much. “I personally think he has loaded up too much of his agenda,” he said. “Jesus, there’s a lot of things that have to be done. There’s only so much that the public can swallow in a year or two.”

In 1965, the year after Johnson was elected by an easy margin, Vietnam had yet to emerge as a national issue. Obama now faces ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Johnson confronted no major economic problems. Obama faces the worst economic climate in generations—and a soaring deficit. The nation experienced a swelling of national unity following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which worked to Johnson’s political benefit. It’s unclear yet whether Obama benefits from a similar level of goodwill.

But 1965 was a year of urgency for Johnson, just as 2009 has become for Obama. In March of that year, Johnson gathered his congressional liaisons and told them to kick it into higher gear.

Johnson told his troops: “Every day I’m in office and every day I push my program, I’ll be losing part of my ability to be influential, because that’s in the nature of what the president does. He uses up capital... I want you guys to get off your asses and do everything possible to get everything in my program passed as soon as possible, before the aura and the halo that surround me disappear.”

That’s good advice for a new president who should know a thing or two about aura and halo—and who may possess less capital than the leader who gave it.

Xtra Insight: Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who helped LBJ on his memoirs, on the Obama-Johnson comparison.

Samuel P. Jacobs has written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.