With Congress, Should Obama be LBJ or Carter? Answer: Neither

“Politico” notes in a story today that President Obama has poor relationships on Capitol Hill.

It’s true that in his dealings with Congress, Barack Obama is more aloof, like Jimmy Carter, than intimate, like Lyndon Johnson.

But is that necessarily a bad thing?

Being viewed as a creature of Congress certainly was once a plus for a president, especially Lyndon Johnson.

Not only did LBJ’s intimacy with Congress enhance his stature as a commanding and skillful leader in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, it helped him secure passage of a great deal of important social legislation, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Medicare Act.

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Johnson understood the legislative process like no president before or after, and he enjoyed many close friendships with leading members of Congress — including House Speaker Sam Rayburn, Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen and Senator Richard Russell of Georgia.

And the passage of LBJ’s Great Society programs testifies to the (sometimes) necessity of a close relationship between a president and Congress.

Jimmy Carter, by contrast, was a stranger to Washington, in general, and Congress, in particular. Carter never served in Congress and, once in Washington, developed very few close relationships with congressional members.

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And Congress returned Carter’s ambivalence, or contempt, in kind, dooming many of his legislative initiatives, most prominently his proposed energy reforms.

So, it stands to reason that Obama should get busy and start emulating Johnson, right?

Wrong. This is 2012, not 1964 or 1977. And much has changed since Johnson and Carter occupied the White House. The White House-Congress relationship is now much more problematic.

First, it’s fantasy to suggest that improved personal relations between Obama and members of Congress, particularly Republicans, would result in automatic success for the president’s legislative initiatives. Congress is broken and no longer a body interested in bipartisan compromise. Playing golf with John Boehner or inviting Mitch McConnell over to the Residence for cocktails won’t change the dynamics.

Just ask Richard Lugar how much his friendly relations with Obama improved his political standing in Indiana. And ask Obama how much his friendship with Lugar contributed to passage of important legislation.

Second, associating yourself closely with Congress is a losing proposition with the public. Obama’s approval rating in most surveys stands at about 50 percent. Congress has an approval rating somewhere south of 15 percent.

In 1974, Gallup’s yearly approval rating average for Congress was 37 percent; in 2009, it was 19. It will like be even lower for 2012.

From Obama’s viewpoint, what good could possibly come from being seen more often with a group of politicians who most Americans despise?

Third, Lyndon Johnson had almost total command of the nation’s airwaves in 1964. There was no Internet, no Fox News, no Twitter. When the president spoke, he set the agenda and Congress and the news media generally fell in line. That doesn’t mean that LBJ commanded the Congress or the media, but he did establish and guide the legislative and news agendas in ways that Obama cannot.

When Obama speaks to a joint session of Congress, the television networks allow the Republican Party to put forth a speaker to refute him. Johnson never had to contend with Everett Dirksen giving a prime-time speech in opposition to Johnson’s plans for civil rights or Medicare.

Sure, Dirksen and the Republicans had access to the media in 1965, but now Boehner and McConnell have their “own” television network. It’s a more balanced playing field.

Johnson also had “command” of the public, enjoying in 1964 and 1965 the strong support of the American people. That broad support, which Obama does not have, almost always means a more compliant Congress.

Fourth, Johnson had served in the House and then as Senate leader. Congress was in his bones. He knew the Senate like Jack Nicklaus knew Augusta National. Try as he might, Johnson could never pretend to be anything but a creature of Congress.

Obama, by contrast, served a mere four years in the Senate. He spent about two of those years running for president and seems to understand (and respect) the Senate even less than did John F. Kennedy, who served there for eight years.

Finally, Johnson’s command of Congress is something of a myth, perhaps now on steroids with the publication of Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power, the fourth volume in his massive biography project, The Years of Lyndon Johnson.

In 1964 and 1965, Johnson was a dreadnaught when it came to Congress. He was in total command.

But wait until Caro gets to 1966, 1967 and 1968 in his next volume. Readers will see a vastly different president whose powers of persuasion were very much waxing because of the Vietnam War.

I offer a brief passage from my 2001 book on Congress and the Vietnam War, A Grand Delusion: America’s Descent Into Vietnam, as evidence of Johnson’s diminished powers of persuasion:

Unable to accept their criticisms or suggestions as sincere policy dis­agreements, Johnson viewed virtually all dissent as personal disloyalty. To Johnson, the war became not America’s war in Vietnam, but Johnson’s war. Gradually, he had lost the ability to separate himself from the conflict. To oppose or question his policy was to oppose Johnson. To oppose Johnson was an unpatriotic act of betrayal, a decision to oppose “your country” and “the boys” who were fighting and dying in the jungles of South Vietnam. As historian Robert Dallek observed, Johnson’s personalization of the war “crimped his capacity to make sensible, detached judgments on what now needed to be done.”

Instead of deftly courting his Senate critics — as he had done hundreds of times before on countless other issues — Johnson denounced them, ignored them, or banished them from his presence. When it came to Viet­nam, the most effective legislative leader of the twentieth century simply squandered his enormous powers of persuasion. Had he drawn his critics more to his side, listened to them, engaged them in real discussions over the war, and sought to persuade them with honest arguments instead of misleading information, Johnson might have kept men like [J. William] Fulbright and [Robert] Kennedy close enough to temper their public criticisms of his policies. He might also have learned something.

What Johnson did learn was that Congress is a fickle and troublesome mate.

Like Johnson in 1964-65, Obama already knows what it’s like to get his way with Congress (at least fifty percent, plus one) after passing health care reform.

And now he is learning what’s it’s like to be estranged.

It’s not likely that anything will happen in 2012 to prompt Obama to seek reconciliation. And that’s just as well.

Congress, it seems, doesn’t really respect presidents. What it respects is the public’s view and support of the president.

To paraphrase LBJ about the Vietnam War, grab Congress with some strong poll numbers, and their hearts and minds will follow.

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