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.

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.
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.

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