Following President Barack Obama’s speech on healthcare last week, several pundits said it was a performance worthy of Harry “Give ’em Hell” Truman. After his election, he was likened to Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. But for the coming battle over healthcare reform, Mr Obama needs to step into the shoes of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Especially when it comes to lining up votes from recalcitrant members of his own party, LBJ’s brawling, southern style of trench politics is the one best suited for the current challenge.
LBJ has been one of America’s most underrated presidents. He held the office for most of the 1960s, a tumultuous decade when the nation was torn by race riots and the struggle for civil rights. Despite the obstacles of backward attitudes and stubbornly discriminatory institutions, the hardnosed southerner was able to deliver more on the civil rights agenda than his predecessor, President John F. Kennedy, an Irish Catholic from Massachusetts, ever could have done.
Stories of LBJ’s toughness are legendary. He was willing to twist arms and step on the toes of narrowly tribal colleagues in the south. He knew how to stare down former Senate associates, calling them into his office, rolling up his sleeves, poking them in the chest and getting eyeball to eyeball. He could curse, bully and hound like a redneck thug when he needed to.
But he could sweet-talk and horse-trade too, using all the tools of legal bribery and persuasion that a president possesses. It wasn’t pretty, but it sure was effective. LBJ got the job done by having a clear compass on what could be bargained away while still maintaining his objectives. What resulted was the greatest civil rights legislation since the abolition of slavery, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which significantly reduced discrimination and set America on the path that ultimately led to the election of the first black president.
Mr Obama needs to let the Blue Dog Democrats such as senators Max Baucus, Ben Nelson and Kent Conrad know who is in charge. Besides channelling his internal LBJ, Mr Obama needs to tear a page from the playbook of two other southerners who knew how to use the brass knuckles. Former Republican operatives Karl Rove and Tom DeLay made it clear that any representatives of the Grand Old Party who crossed their agenda would face a well-funded conservative opponent in their next primary. That sent a shiver through the ranks and the backbenchers fell in line.
Mr Obama should let any Democratic foot-draggers know that if they do not get with the program, he will un-elect them and put in Democrats more in tune with his priorities. The threat would be credible, as he is one of the great campaigners of modern political history. Mr Obama still enjoys popularity–though it is dwindling–among the broad coalition that mobilised to elect him. He could convincingly threaten to fund candidates to run against uncooperative senators in Democratic primaries, and to campaign on behalf of his slate of candidates.
But to make that threat, Mr Obama has to mean it. He has to show a quality that the nation has not seen in him since the presidential election ended last November. Some glimpses of it were present in his powerful healthcare speech, but now he needs to show that a new LBJ is in town.
Johnson made mistakes—the escalation in Vietnam being his gravest (Obama take note). But more than any president in the last half-century, he passed landmark legislation that made the US a better place. He did it fighting the same forces that Obama now faces–outdated attitudes, fear of change and vested interests, not only across the nation but within the Senate and his own party.
Like civil rights in the 1960s, healthcare reform is one of the defining policy debates of our time. The US remains the only advanced economy that has failed to figure out how to provide affordable healthcare for all its people. To win this battle, Mr Obama needs to retire the photos of Lincoln and FDR into his desk drawer in the Oval Office and hang on his wall a large portrait of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the Texas brawler who knew how to drag his former Senate colleagues across the finish line.
New America Foundation
Originally published in The Financial Times. Republished with the author’s permission.