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Obama and Congress: Up Close and Personal

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/11/obama-congress2.jpgPresident-elect Barack Obama will need to work effectively with Congress if he hopes to enact his legislative agenda. (WDCpix)

As President-elect Barack Obama assembles his administration, the final scenes of the 2008 campaign shift to Capitol Hill, where a lame-duck session shadowboxes over economic recovery measures. At the same time, the unresolved races in Georgia and Minnesota, the fate of renegade Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and the Democrats’ quest to construct a “filibuster-proof majority” highlight the crucial challenge for the incoming president: his ability to push legislation through both houses of Congress and appointments through the Senate.

Even with Obama’s party in power on Capitol Hill, that task will not prove simple. Nobody should expect a reprise of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first hundred days, when Congress rushed to enact banking reforms without even getting the chance to read the legislation.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Indeed, an electoral mandate and majorities in both houses offer no guarantee of legislative success. President Jimmy Carter could not navigate his energy plan through a Democratic Congress (remember the cardigan?), nor could President Bill Clinton win support for his health-care plan (remember the Health Security Card?).

Republicans have fared no better. Fresh off his re-election victory in 2004, George W. Bush told the White House press corps that he had “earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.“ He staked much of it on a proposal to privatize Social Security that failed to move through the GOP-controlled Congress.

How, then, might Obama avoid such pitfalls? The career of another senator-turned-president suggests some valuable lessons. During the 1960s, Lyndon B. Johnson transformed the relationship between the legislative and executive branches. A former Senate leader, LBJ immersed himself and his staff in all the details of legislation from “the cradle to the grave, from the moment a bill is introduced to the moment it is officially enrolled as the law of the land.”

Johnson visited the Capitol frequently and met constantly with congressional leaders. “There is but one way for a president to deal with the Congress,” he said, “and that is continuously, incessantly and without interruption. If it’s really going to work, the relationship between the president and the Congress has got to be almost incestuous. He’s got to know them even better than they know themselves.”

Johnson ordered his staff to give congressional relations the highest priority. “You are going to get a lot of phone calls,” LBJ warned his White House advisers. “People are going to court you and flatter you because you have access to the president. You are going to find yourself a social lion and a fellow with more charm than you ever thought you had. And you will be all this because of the job you hold.” But, LBJ commanded, “the most important people you will talk to are senators and congressmen. You treat them as if they were president. Answer their calls immediately.”

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/11/lbj-112008.jpgLyndon Johnson's relationship with Congress allowed him to pass the Civil Rights Bill in 1968. (Wikimedia Commons)

When Congress was in session, Johnson breakfasted every week with the legislative leadership. As they feasted on eggs, toasted homemade bread and links of the special deer sausage Johnson flew in from Texas, the president worked through a large posterboard sitting on an easel. The poster mapped out all the pending legislation in the House and Senate, plotting its path through the various committees down into a bowl drawn on the bottom of the chart to represent final passage of the law.

As they ate, LBJ applied the “Treatment,” cajoling, flattering and persuading the congressional leaders to move his bills forward. The chart accompanied Johnson to Cabinet meetings and his conferences with influential citizens. During 1965, it seemed to follow him everywhere.

Managing Congress also meant knowing when not to ask for a vote; understanding that allies — particularly in a broad, unstable majority — sometimes could not vote with the president. This is something Obama also needs to know. With more than 50 “Blue Dog Democrats” in the House, including conservative Southern and Western congressmen from districts carried strongly by Sen. John McCain, Obama will have to know when he can count on their votes, and when he must expect (and even approve) their opposition to preserve the long-term health of his majority.

For example, Johnson, who was determined to pass the civil-rights law that had stalled in Congress for decades, knew it was fruitless to apply pressure to Southern senators in his own party. “I can’t make a Southerner change his spots,” he told one civil-rights leader, “any more than I can make a leopard change them.” To shut off the inevitable filibuster, Johnson needed Republican votes — especially the support of the Senate minority leader, Everett Dirksen of Illinois.

Johnson began a campaign of flattery — praising Dirksen’s statesmanship, asking his “advice” on appointments, granting him small victories against the White House. “You know this bill can’t pass unless you get Ev Dirksen,” Johnson told his floor manager for civil rights, Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.). “You’ve got to let him have a piece of the action. He’s got to look good all the time.” In the end, they got Dirksen and more than enough Republican votes to end the filibuster and pass the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.

With the Blue Dogs in the House and fewer than 60 votes in the Senate, Obama will need to build and rebuild a shifting series of coalitions. Even if the Democrats do reach 60 votes in the Senate, that majority will only be “filibuster-proof” if the leadership can deliver every single vote for cloture. On few issues is a caucus that includes Lieberman and Edward M. Kennedy, Virginia’s Jim Webb, North Dakota’s Tim Johnson, and California’s Barbara Boxer likely to find unanimity.

Those ad hoc majorities were central to LBJ’s dealings with Congress. On civil rights, he needed northern Republicans. On Medicare and Food Stamps, he brought together conservative Southerners in his own party with liberal Northerners to overcome Republican opposition.

Sometimes, Johnson made concessions to influential congressmen, like Rep. Wilbur Mills (D-Arkansas), chairman of the Ways-and-Means Committee. Other times he built broad coalitions by strategically larding bills with goodies for key legislators. A number of conservative Southern senators supported the food stamp program, for example, because Johnson made sure it was as generous to farmers as to the poor and hungry.

While Johnson’s White House almost never explicitly traded favors for particular votes, every member of Congress understood that cooperation brought benefits: invitations on foreign trips, influence on appointments, projects for the home district. When they voted against the president, recalcitrant members knew they would pay a price.

Defending a key vote against the administration, Sen. Frank Church told the president that celebrated newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann had endorsed his views. “I’ll tell you what, Frank,” the president replied, “next time you want a dam in Idaho, you call Walter Lippmann and let him put it through for you.”

So President Obama must know when to ease off, but he must also recognize when to push.

Johnson began the 89th Congress, the 1965 legislative session, with a commanding Democratic majority — 295 out of 435 votes in the House. For the first time in decades, the wide margin ensured a sympathetic majority for liberal measures.

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/11/kennedyapollo.jpgDespite his popularity, John F. Kennedy had trouble getting his agenda passed. (Wikimedia Commons)

Even without the support of conservative Southern Democrats, the administration could count on enough votes to enact its reform agenda. As one of Johnson’s congressional liaisons put it, “When we have a fat Congress as we did in the 89th, then we can hike up our demands to fit the situation. When the votes are not razor thin,” he explained, then the administration had not pushed far enough.

The last time a sitting senator moved straight into the White House, familiarity with Congress bred only contempt. John F. Kennedy championed a slew of new programs, but with only a few exceptions the president could not get them enacted. The principal objectives of Kennedy’s domestic agenda — federal aid to education, a tax cut, and civil rights legislation — stalled on Capitol Hill.

The New York Times political reporter, Tom Wicker, described Kennedy’s inability to manage the Congress as one of the “great ironies of American politics. He wondered why “JFK, the immensely popular president, could not reach his legislative goals.” The stubborn opposition surprised Kennedy himself. “When I was a congressman,” the thwarted president mused, “I never realized how important Congress was. Now I do.”

Americans might hope that Obama learns that lesson sooner and better than his role model.

Bruce J. Schulman is the Huntington professor of American history at Boston University. H**is latest book, co-edited with Julian E. Zelizer, is “Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s.” He is the author of* “The ’70s: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society and Politics,” “Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism” and “From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt : Federal Policy, Economic Development and the Transformation of the South 1938-1980.” *

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