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Study: Obama better at bending Congress than Lyndon Johnson

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According to Congressional Quarterly, President Obama "did better even than legendary arm-twister Lyndon Johnson in winning congressional votes on issues where he took a position." That is to say, if Obama told Congress he wanted X, Congress was more likely to give him X than any president in the past 60 years.

On the one hand, you could take this as evidence that Obama is an awesome president. But I'd say it's a bit more complex than that.

You're seeing the triumph of three things here. First, an uncommonly large Democratic majority. Second, a long-standing historical trend toward party discipline. And third, the White House's relentless strategy of focusing on what it can pass rather than what it thinks is needed.

The first two are fairly self-explanatory. It's easier for Obama to get what he wants because his party controls a lot of seats in Congress -- including 60 in the Senate, which hasn't happened since Carter. Moreover, 60 Democratic votes today are more useful to the president than 60 Democratic votes would've been in 1970.The modern Democratic Party isn't split by Dixiecrats upholding a conservative, racist agenda underneath the Democratic banner. That realignment has also made for more party discipline: The fact that the party basically agrees means it's easier for the leadership to get all the members to do basically the same thing.

The third is a bit more complex. Obama has pursued a very ambitious legislative agenda, but not a very ambitious ideological agenda. Compared with the health-care reform bills favored by Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson, Obama's reform package was modest and compromised. It relied on the private market, left 90 percent of Americans totally alone and didn't attempt to wage any ideological battles over what American health-care insurance should look like. Health-care reform is probably too generous a term for it. It was more of a health-care expansion.

Similarly, the stimulus was necessary, but far too small. Financial regulation looks like it will be terribly compromised. Obama's win-loss record is partially a function of refusing to take on fights he doesn't think himself capable of winning. That's probably a good thing, though you could also argue that aiming for the center of the congressional consensus means you start with legislation that's insufficient to the scale of the problem and end with something even less adequate than that. Johnson is remembered as a giant because he was good at getting Congress to do things it didn't necessarily want to do. Obama's genius has been to recognize what Congress was willing to do and build an agenda around those items.

The byproduct of this "congressionalist" strategy has been that it's forced people to look squarely at the dysfunctions of the legislative branch. The Obama administration has largely inhabited the presidency's traditional role on domestic legislation, which is to express preferences but let Congress do the work. That's in stark contrast to recent presidents who have acted more like members of the congressional leadership and done more to dictate the precise contours of bills. At this point, we're watching a Congress that's barely able to keep up with a legislative agenda that is still woefully far from what the country needs. And the reason we're seeing that clearly is in part because the Obama administration has gotten out of the way.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 12, 2010; 12:57 PM ET
Categories:  Government , Obama administration  
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Comments

The graph doesn't mean much, especially with such limited data for Obama. But I agree with your overall argument.

My mom says Kennedy was far and away the best President of her lifetime. He set the agenda for the progressive era.

Posted by: bmull | January 12, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

I agree with much of this argument, with the last statement a notable exception. I don't know that the admin has "gotten out of the way" so much as it has targeted its legislation toward the center. And the center is just as much part of the process as anything else. The administration is going to play a role in any legislation no matter what. And so far, it looks like the role they have played has simply amplified the power of the center. I don't consider that getting out of the way, by any stretch. Since I don't believe getting out of the way is even an option for the WH.

Secondly, it's in Democrats' interest for Americans to see government as a functional and beneficial actor in their lives. The process of healthcare reform--among the other things you mentioned here--has undermined that message. Instead, what we see is a government that continues to fall short of being able to address the challenges we face. In no way is that a good thing--from either a political or a policy standpoint. But admittedly, I don't know how to fix it.

Posted by: slag | January 12, 2010 2:09 PM | Report abuse

Let me make this perfectly clear: Obama, Reid and Pelosi have bent the Democrats until they have broken -- as the 2010 elections will soon demonstrate with perfect clarity.

Posted by: poplab | January 12, 2010 2:45 PM | Report abuse

I love charts and graphs that say absolutely nothing....it makes reading the whole article go much faster. May I suggest that you give our neophyte President a little more time...in fact, quite a bit more time, until you attempt to make valid comparisons with some of his great...yes, I said "great" predecessors.

Posted by: connyankee1 | January 12, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse

Well said. I think an added dimension is the state of the country at this time; Johnson had a very different populace to work with and the times were ones of change that even Congress knew was inevitable. Boomers were taking over the country and the elders were stepping aside. Now Boomers are the old folks resisting change, and they still have the numbers to control things.

I think there is a huge generational gap between the President and the Congress, and I am counting on some of the younger journalists, such as you, to start teasing that apart. The mean age in the Senate is 63! Some would argue nothing is possible in that august body right now. They are living in the past, particularly Republicans who invoke Reagan every 5-10 minutes. Stagnation and habit are huge drags on imagination.

Posted by: pbkritek | January 12, 2010 4:14 PM | Report abuse

Whats been even more entertaining is how this "congressionalist" strategy has dismayed and confused the media. All through the health care reform process, they've been reaching for a White House-centered plan which doesnt exist, though that hasnt stopped WSJ from referring to all of this as "Obamacare" anyway.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | January 12, 2010 4:29 PM | Report abuse

We wouldn't know about the arm twisting as the doors to the back room deals are not "clear" and "transparent".

Posted by: inmanorj | January 12, 2010 5:12 PM | Report abuse

Of course, this could also mean that President Obama only takes a position when he strongly believes that he can get the votes. This would explain why he didn't choose to fight for the public option but did choose to fight for the tax on "cadillac plans."

Posted by: twweaver7777 | January 12, 2010 5:58 PM | Report abuse

It just means Obama uses all of the Chicago dirty tricks he learned like Bribery and Extortion effectively. Now we will see if he survives a few years without an indictment for his illegal activity

Posted by: Obama_TRAITOR_in_Chief | January 12, 2010 7:08 PM | Report abuse

Mr Klien overlooked President Obama gets legislation he wants that ALREADY AGREES with Congress. For instance, Congress is allowed "insider information" to Wall St. His economic team are mostly Wall St Republicans left over from Bush Administration. It is no surprise to me that Congress went right along with his "stimuilous" package that bailed out Wall St and left the little guy hanging. No special skill there.
The difference between Lyndon Johnson and President Obama is Johnson could get legislation the Republicans hated, passed. Obama has dropped the heart and soul out of Health Care Reform until it is nothing more than a give-away to the mega-insurance companies to appease the Republicans. President Johnson would threaten Democrats and republicans alike until they gave into him, not the other way around. When the Republicans say "No way!" Obama says, "What can I do to please you?"
President Obama's popularity has fallen below 50% for the first time on domestic issues. His compromises are displeasing to his supporters and his detractors will always dislike him. I believe his numbers will continue to fall until he stands up and demands healthcare as he outlined it during his campaign, even if it means returning a lesser bill back to Conress without his signature until he gets what the majority of Americans want. But as long as he's backing away from every promise made, he will continue to lose popularity.

Posted by: thestoryplease | January 12, 2010 8:18 PM | Report abuse

Your argument doesn't go far enough. Johnson actively pushed the boundaries of what was possible in the Congress through active lobbying and arm-twisting. Reagan, who faced a House controlled by the opposing party for his entire tenure in office, pushed the boundaries of what was possible in the country by going over the heads of Congress to make his case. Obama who likes to compare himself to Reagan actively campaigned on the notion he would do the latter if not the former (remember the "just words" controversy and the claims he would call on his online followers to actively support his legislative agenda?) He has done neither contenting himself, rather, with trying to sell to the country whatever can pass muster with the most obstinate holdouts as fully meeting the promises he laid out. What separates Obama from Johnson - or Reagan -- isn't what he does ("aim for the center") but what he doesn't do (try to set the terms of presidential debate.) If this is the "traditional role of the president" it is one that hasn't been seen since Hoover.

Posted by: arswamy | January 12, 2010 9:08 PM | Report abuse

Arswamy. You are a very intelligent person. Good to read post.

Posted by: sbhappe34 | January 12, 2010 11:17 PM | Report abuse

PRESIDENT OBAMA IS A BETTER LEADER THAN PEOPLE THINK.HE MAKES THINGS HAPPEN.THE POLLS ARE MISSLEADING.AS PRESIDENT OBAMA DROP IN THE POLLS SO WILL THE REPUBLICANS I TALK TO MANY [[I'M IN A HEAVY REPUBLICAN AREA]]WHO ARE VERY UPSET THAT REPUBLICANS ARE SETTING AND NOT DOING WE EXPECT MORE THAN WE ARE GETTING FROM THE PARTY.BEING SELFEMPLOYED I SEE A GAIN IN THE ECONOMY IF IT DOES THE REPUBLICANS MAY LOSE BIG. THE AMERICAN PEOPLE DESERVE A WORKING GOVERMENT. NOT FENCE SETTERS.

Posted by: theoldmansays | January 13, 2010 12:14 AM | Report abuse

Let me make this perfectly clear. Congress has it's own minds and must take into consideration the physical and finacial aspect with every decision. The President has no right...I repeat...no right to bribe, threaten or coerce any member of Congress, the Senate or the House of Representatives. His just reward for doing so...2010, 2012 and 2014.

Posted by: rcdavisgtx | January 13, 2010 5:16 PM | Report abuse

I'd add that the large number of crises as Obama came into power loosened Congress up a bit, too.

Posted by: roquelaure_79 | January 15, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

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