This article originally appeared in The Washington Spectator.
The United States is a separation-of-powers system within which the chief executive has substantially less power over domestic policy than, say, a British prime minister. Despite this, legislation passed by the United States Congress tends to be associated very strongly with the president who signed the bills. The Affordable Care Act -- addressing what has been a major liberal priority since at least the Truman administration and heavily influenced by many legislators -- is becoming almost universally known as "Obamacare." This tendency only increases over time -- 20 years from now, schoolchildren are much more likely to have heard of Barack Obama than Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid.
When legislation endures, this is a good deal for presidents, but when they're in the White House, it's a double-edged sword. Not only a president's enemies, but his sometimes allies, are likely to compare even an accomplished president unfavorably with his predecessors, whose failures and compromises tend to be forgotten. The ACA might be a major improvement, but shouldn't the U.S. have universal health care comparable to other liberal democracies? Couldn't Obama have gotten a trillion-dollar stimulus passed? Why didn't Congress address climate change? A more forceful leader, like FDR or LBJ, surely would have done whatever it takes to get Congress to do what was necessary.
Except that they probably wouldn't have.
Hospitable to Liberalism
It is tempting to explain the unusual progressive successes of the Great Society by depicting LBJ giving a hapless legislator "The Treatment," and assuming that Johnson had ruthless leadership skills recent Democratic presidents lack.
None of this is to deny LBJ his due credit for the Great Society, just as Obama deserves substantial credit for the passage of the ACA, a process that could have failed at numerous points without his determination. And Zelizer makes it clear when and how LBJ's leadership mattered. Johnson's strong basic commitment to New Deal liberalism--not necessarily evident at the time of his ascension to the White House--was important in setting the national agenda. Having almost singlehandedly made the position of Senate majority leader a consequential one, he was better prepared than most presidents to deal with Congress from day one. (Bill Clinton, for example, made errors in his crucial first year in dealing with Congress that LBJ almost certainly would not have.) If a crucial vote of a Senate committee chairman could be bought off by reaching into the pork barrel, LBJ knew about it and would make the deal.
So it is tempting to explain the unusual progressive successes of the Great Society by depicting LBJ giving a hapless legislator "The Treatment," and assuming that Johnson had ruthless leadership skills recent Democratic presidents lack. But the effect of these leadership tools, Zelizer shows, tends to be overrated in retrospect. LBJ did have some unique abilities that mattered at the margin. But the biggest factor in his legislative success was the simple fact that he was briefly working in a legislative environment that was unusually hospitable to liberalism.
With a Deft Hand
It's also important to note that to secure the support of Republican minority leader Everett Dirksen, Johnson agreed to substantially weaken the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. The fact that the Illinois senator felt a responsibility to pass legislation and to compromise is one reason that the passage of Great Society legislation isn't terribly relevant to the challenges faced by contemporary presidents.
Already on Your Side
LBJ wasn't the only 1964 presidential candidate responsible for the substantial achievements of the 89th Congress. Barry Goldwater deserves some credit for the progressive legislation Johnson signed into law, including Medicare, Medicaid, and major federal educational and anti-poverty spending. Johnson's crushing defeat of Goldwater brought with it huge and unusually liberal Democratic congressional majorities. The Republicans who survived "were profoundly shaken by the election returns and believed they could no longer afford to obstruct Johnson's proposals."
Zelizer also shows that Medicare was not imposed top-down by Johnson, but its shape was largely determined by negotiations within Congress, with LBJ frequently taking a hands-off role. (And the decision not to pursue universal health care reform was in itself a major compromise, particularly since the decision to provide health insurance to those over 65 made getting the necessary support for European-style health care effectively impossible.)
The liberals who built the Great Society also derived some political capital from a darker source: the escalating disaster in Vietnam. Unlike Nixon, who was willing to sign almost any legislation a Democratic Congress put on his desk if it left him free to conduct foreign policy, Johnson is portrayed in The Fierce Urgency of Now as a president with little interest in foreign policy beyond a standard commitment to Cold War liberalism. He was willing to allow the war to continue, because ending it might have limited his ability to expand the New Deal, with ultimately disastrous consequences.
Clearly written and brimming with telling historical details and sharp insights, The Fierce Urgency of Now is essential reading not only for those who want to understand the Great Society but for everyone concerned with how it might be preserved or expanded. The occupant of the White House matters, but without both willing collaborators in Congress and grassroots pressure, the ability of presidents to move the legislative needle will always be severely limited.