In LBJ’s shadow, Obama honors civil rights legacy

President Obama praised President Johnson for his ability to charm and horse-trade in enacting a major civil rights law 50 years ago – skills where critics say Obama falls short.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama speaks at the LBJ Presidential Library on Thursday in Austin, Texas, during the Civil Rights Summit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act.

In a speech Thursday marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, President Obama honored the man who made the law – and his own presidency – possible, President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Mr. Obama praised “LBJ” for his legendary ability to charm, persuade, and horse-trade as he got Congress to pass not just landmark civil rights legislation, including the Voting Rights Act, but also key elements of the modern-day social safety net, Medicare and Medicaid.

“Passing laws is what LBJ knew how to do,” Obama told the audience at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.

Obama has faced criticism for lacking Johnson’s persuasive abilities, which the 36th president honed in his years as Senate majority leader before becoming vice president, then president. But the 44th president made clear that he shared Johnson’s willingness to dream big – and then act.

Obama recounted how an aide to Johnson cautioned him against spending time and political capital on “lost causes.” Johnson reportedly replied, “What the hell's the presidency for, if not to fight for causes you believe in?”

Obama went through a similar experience when he decided to plow ahead with health-care reform early in his presidency, in 2009 and 2010, even as the nation was staggering from a fiscal crisis and deep economic recession.  

At the same time, Obama also remarked on the smallness of any one president, when considered in the sweep of time.  

“You're reminded daily that in this great democracy, you are but a relay swimmer in the currents of history, bound by decisions made by those who came before, reliant on the efforts of those who will follow to fully vindicate your vision,” Obama said.

The president again seemed to be referring not just to Johnson but to himself, and his experience with health-care reform. He suggested an awareness that the success of the Affordable Care Act will depend on those in government who follow him. While slowly gaining in public acceptance, the law has just begun its first year of full implementation and remains a work in progress.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the speech came when Obama, the nation’s first black president, acknowledged Johnson’s role in allowing him to reach the pinnacle of American power.

Because of the civil rights movement and the laws that President Johnson signed, “new doors of opportunity” swung open for everybody, Obama said. “They swung open for you and they swung open for me. And that's why I'm standing here today, because of those efforts, because of that legacy.”

Obama also expanded the definition of civil rights in a way that Johnson, who died in 1973, surely never imagined. The law opened opportunities not just for blacks and whites, “but also women and Latinos and Asians and gay Americans and Americans with a disability,” Obama said.

The president spoke on the day three judges on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver heard arguments on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, an issue that appears headed for the Supreme Court.

Obama was the keynote speaker on Day 3 of a summit at the LBJ Library commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, which Johnson signed on July 2, 1964. Former Presidents Carter and Clinton have already spoken, and President George W. Bush was to speak Thursday evening. The first President Bush attended, but did not speak.

The Civil Rights Act banned discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Buttressed by large majorities of Democrats in both houses of Congress, Johnson fought not just for mere majorities but for big majorities of both parties, as a way of signaling to the country that the law was here to stay.

Still, Obama said, despite laws like the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and Medicare, American society remains wracked with division and poverty. But that’s no reason, he said, to give in to cynicism and to allow big elements of LBJ’s legacy to be rolled back.  

“I reject such thinking, not just because Medicare and Medicaid have lifted millions from suffering, not just because the poverty rate in this nation would be far worse without food stamps and Head Start and all the Great Society programs that survive to this day,” he said. “I reject such cynicism because I have lived out the promise of LBJ's efforts. Because Michelle has lived out the legacy of those efforts. Because my daughters have lived out the legacy of those efforts. Because I and millions of my generation were in a position to take the baton that he handed to us.”

Obama did not directly discuss last year’s Supreme Court ruling that struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act – the provision that requires some jurisdictions with histories of discrimination in voting to receive advance federal approval for changes to election laws. Nor did he discuss the new laws passed by Republican-controlled legislatures requiring voters to show ID at the polls, an effort that disproportionately hinders minorities, who tend to be Democrats, from voting.

But Mr. Clinton, in his remarks Wednesday, pounded hard on the issue.

“Is this what Martin Luther King gave his life for?” the 42nd president said. “Is this what Lyndon Johnson employed his legendary skills for? Is this what America has become a great thriving democracy for? To restrict the franchise?”

Analysts see the multiday summit in Austin as a vehicle, in part, for rehabilitating Johnson’s image. Johnson left office widely viewed as a broken man, having decided not to run for a second full term in 1968 amid growing public opposition to the Vietnam War.

“The events of this week are an effort to position LBJ himself within the American narrative of the 20th century – to downplay Vietnam and play up his domestic policy achievements,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. 

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