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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Can Obama Deploy Some LBJ Strategy?

Robert Dallek has put a must-read post for political strategy junkies up on the New York Times Opinion section, “Can Obama Be a Majority of One?” Dallek, author of acclamed books about Democratic presidencies, discusses which of LBJ’s impressively successful legislative reform tactics might work for President Obama. On Johnson’s sober expectations:

Despite his majorities, Johnson took nothing for granted. He predicted “a hard fight every inch of the way.” He told one adviser: “I’ve watched the Congress from either the inside or the outside … for more than 40 years, and I’ve never seen a Congress that didn’t eventually take the measure of the president it was dealing with.”

LBJ had a toughness of spirit in dealing with congress, but it was tempered with matchless parliamentary know-how and lengthy mental dossiers on hundreds of members of congress that informed his deployment of carrots and sticks:

…He directed aides to treat every member of Congress as if he or she was the center of the political universe. They were instructed to return a representative’s or senator’s call in “10 minutes or else.” Johnson himself devoted countless hours talking to them on the telephone.
Conservative Democrats and Republicans were not neglected. When Representative Silvio Conte, a Republican from Massachusetts, cast a vote for a Johnson initiative, the president called to thank him “on behalf of the nation for your vote.” “It’s the only time since I have been in Congress that a president called me,” Conte said. “I will never forget it”
Every bill Johnson sent to the Hill was presented as a collaboration and was identified with a particular representative or senator. And no cooperative legislator would go un-rewarded…Uncooperative legislators paid a price for their independence. When Senator Frank Church, an Idaho Democrat, justified a vote against a Johnson bill by saying that columnist Walter Lippmann shared his view, Johnson scolded him: “Frank, next time you want a dam in Idaho, you call Walter Lippmann and let him put it through.”

On President Obama’s more limited options:

Three months into his presidency, it’s apparent that Mr. Obama is not likely to match the 207 significant pieces of Johnson legislation; but not because he’s unmindful of L.B.J.’s methods. Like Johnson, the current president has been showering considerable attention on members of Congress, courting them by traveling to the Hill and asking their input into his big ticket items — the budget, health insurance, educational, and environmental reforms…
But Mr. Obama faces a more difficult challenge than Johnson’s. Unlike L.B.J., he lacks long-time ties to Congressional leaders, which may be one reason his stimulus plan barely made it out of the Senate and many Democrats, including Kent Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, are balking at the president’s proposed budget. In addition, the sort of mutual back-scratching Johnson relied on is out of vogue. Trading pork-barrel grants for Congressional votes is no longer seen as acceptable politics but as unsavory opportunism. Also, Mr. Obama has far thinner majorities than Johnson had and fewer moderate Republicans to woo. Finally, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and deficits running as far into the future as the eye can see are problems that did not burden Johnson’s reach for a Great Society.

On a more positive note, however:

Yet all is not lost. President Obama has a degree of popular support that rivals the approval F.D.R., Eisenhower, Kennedy and Reagan enjoyed. And the public’s continuing eagerness for change gives him an advantage over Congress that may yet translate into major economic and social reforms.

Add to this Obama’s email rollodex, the progressive blogosphere support and the edge provided by a highly competent staff, and Obama’s political assets for winning legialtive reforms are formidable.
It would be hard to match LBJ’s mastery of political hardball and softball, and Obama may face a test sooner than later, if congressional Democratic leaders decide to go with the controversial “fast track” budget reconciliation process to pass President Obama’s health care reform and global warming legislation. Resorting to the filibuster-preventing tactic makes some Democrats who still hold fast to fading hopes for a more bipartisan approach a little queasy. But it has been used 19 times in recent years in which both houses of Congress were controlled by one party, according to Majority Leader Harry Reid, who says ” I don’t know why everyone is up in arms about it.”
Indeed. When was the last time an incoming GOP President sincerely reached out to embrace Democrats in genuine bipartisan goodwill? And it’s equally hard to cite an example of Republicans reaching out to help President Obama achieve bipartisan reform. It is early in Obama’s term for protracted trench warfare, but if that’s what it takes to get decent health care coverage for Americans and a sane environmental policy, then we need to bring it on.

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