J. Scott Applewhite/AP
President Barack Obama talks about his
plan for health care reform, July 20,

From Lincoln to LBJ: Health Care Inspires Obama’s Presidential Makeover

July 21, 2009 06:00 PM
by Jill Marcellus
Thanks to his health care plan, President Obama’s comparisons have nosedived from "the new Lincoln" to "the new Lyndon B. Johnson."

From Presidential Ideals to Congressional Deals

Obama literally rode the Lincoln train to inauguration, self-consciously following the iconic former president’s earlier rail route from Illinois to the White House. Now, surprisingly, the president’s officials are among those who most prominently liken Obama to LBJ.

This apparent demotion in historical parallels makes more sense in light of the health care reform battle. During the campaign, critics such as the Weekly Standard wondered whether Obama’s Lincoln-esque rhetoric could translate into substantial legislative success. Lincoln may have freed the slaves and united the country, but Johnson passed the Medicare bill.

According to The Washington Post, Obama senior adviser David Axelrod is now stressing Obama’s similarities to Johnson, who combined a “big vision” with “great appreciation for the legislative process.” Although the LBJ comparison is new as an official White House strategy, Obama’s health advisers were citing Johnson as a model before the president’s inauguration. NPR reported in November 2008 that campaign adviser David Blumenthal praised Johnson’s willingness to ignore reform’s initial high costs and to allow others to take credit. 

Johnson’s strategy for Medicare relied heavily on Congress, and he ceded much control over the bill to Congressman Wilbur Mills. Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin writes in The Daily Beast that Johnson “often said that Congress had to be with you on the takeoff so they’d be with you on the landing.” She claims that Obama, by “giving Congress a leadership role in drafting the health care bill,” has followed that philosophy so far, and has pointedly avoided the pitfalls of another former president, Bill Clinton. Clinton, in stark contrast to Johnson, excluded Congress from the process of drafting his doomed health care bill and allowed disastrous delays. Obama’s insistence on passing a bill by August instead echoes Johnson, who, according to NPR, described letting a bill “lay around” as nearly fatal to any big legislation.

Historical Context: The LBJ Legacy

Lyndon B. Johnson has a mixed legacy today, but PBS reports that had his record ended in 1965, “his would surely be ranked among our nation's finest.” Assuming office in 1963 after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, he won a landslide election the next year, which he accepted as a mandate for reform.

He famously outlined his vision of moving “not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society,” marked by major reforms in education, health care, civil rights and immigration, among other areas. Essential to his successes, which include Medicare and Medicaid, were the Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and his own skills as a pragmatic, consensus-building politician. 

Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, two political columnists quoted by PBS, summarized his approach, known as the “Treatment,” as “an incredibly potent mixture of persuasion, badgering, flattery, threats, and reminders of past favors and future advantages.”

Obama shares Johnson’s advantages of a decisive electoral victory and Democratic majorities in Congress, and he seems willing to abandon his rhetorical perch for detailed, LBJ-style legislative wrangling. Nevertheless, Johnson isn't an uncomplicated role model for Obama. His reforms still failed to quiet increasing societal tensions, and his domestic policy became overshadowed by his much-maligned handling of the Vietnam War. He did not seek reelection in 1968.

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