Actually, Obama’s Record Compares Just Fine With LBJ’s

Let’s stop making so much out of the Obama-Johnson comparison. They were different men from different times, and in any case, Obama’s record stacks up pretty well.

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President Barack Obama speaks at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library April 10, 2014, in Austin, Texas, as he attends a Civil Rights Summit to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

The tenuousness of making comparisons between President Lyndon B. Johnson's vaunted vote-wrangling prowess and the allegedly ineffectual legislative skills of President Barack Obama was nicely summed up on Wednesday with this tweet:

Although it’s meant to get a laugh—and it’s hard to imagine a future where Obama's remembered as a Tea Partier—the upshot—that perceptions change over time—actually holds up pretty well.

And that’s really the bigger point when we keep hearing, as the New York Times’ Peter Baker reported earlier this week, that as time drags on, Obama's become “a symbol of liberal frustration over his inability to use government to bring about change,” while at the same time—for Democrats, at least—LBJ’s time in office was “the high-water mark for American presidents pushing through sweeping legislation.”

In other words, they say, Obama is no LBJ.

And with the advent of this week’s Civil Rights Summit at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas—commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act—we’re getting a fresh round of comparisons.

But leaving aside a debate about whether or not any president’s success or failure should even be measured by counting how many laws are passed on his watch, when it comes to notching wins on his belt, Obama’s record actually stacks up pretty well with Johnson's.

In the rear-view mirror, clearly, LBJ’s success at pushing landmark laws through Congress like the Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1965 Social Security Act, which created Medicare and Medicaid—cornerstones of the post-New Deal social safety net—is formidable.

Thus, by contrast, when someone wants to cut Obama some slack, they explain that for the current president, “the political world doesn’t work the way it did during the 1960s.”

Which is true, but to defend Obama’s record vis-à-vis Johnson’s, you don’t need to point out that unlike Obama, throughout his tenure Johnson’s party controlled both houses of Congress.

Nor do you have to say, in Obama’s defense, that when it comes to pushing for civil rights from inside the White House, there’s been no leader of Martin Luther King Jr.’s stature simultaneously advocating change from the outside.

Obama’s record, it seems to me, really doesn’t need to be graded on a curve.

In the last five years the Dow has doubled, the number of women on the Supreme Court has tripled, and GDP growth has gone from negative to positive—partly on the strength of Obama’s 2009 stimulus, including its payroll tax holiday. And without any Republican votes in Congress, Obama and Democrats passed a Republican plan—the Affordable Care Act, with Mitt Romney’s individual mandate—into law.

At the end of 2010, Obama traded Republicans an extension of the Bush tax cuts for the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” He’s also inked trade deals with South Korea and Colombia, signed a nuclear treaty with Russia, kept his promises to get out of Iraq and stay in Afghanistan, and signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

And that’s only a partial list.

Plus, when it comes right down to it, they’re different men—both of whom have played against type to great effect—Johnson, a Texan with years of deal-cutting experience, was ideally situated to codify the citizenship rights of African Americans. And Obama—whose middle name is “Hussein”—was the ideal guy to silently order Navy SEALS across the border into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden.

Obama’s “wins” aren’t all legislative per se, and some aren’t popular. But if all we’re doing is measuring one man’s ability to work his will versus the other’s, then there’s no need to give Obama points on the spread just because times have changed and he’s dealing with a recalcitrant Congress. He doesn’t need to be more like LBJ.

His record—whether you do or don’t approve of his résumé—can stand on its own.

Editor’s note: Read a different perspective from The Root’s special correspondent, Keli Goff, here.

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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