WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama paid homage to Lyndon B. Johnson on Thursday in a speech that celebrated the power of government to effect change_and linked his own election to Johnson’s legislative legacy.
Obama said he rejects cynicism about government “because I have lived out the promise of LBJ's efforts.”
“That’s why I'm standing here today,” he said. “Because of those efforts.”
Obama, who was elected as America’s first black president in 2008, delivered his remarks in a keynote address at Johnson’s presidential library in Austin, Texas, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.
Four days into Johnson’s “sudden presidency,” Obama said, Johnson told his closest aides that he would fight for a civil rights bill.
“Most of his staff counseled him against it,” Obama said. “They said it was hopeless; that it would anger powerful Southern Democrats and committee chairmen; that it risked derailing the rest of his domestic agenda. And one particularly bold aide said he did not believe a president should spend his time and power on lost causes, however worthy they might be.”
Johnson shot back, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”
Obama repeated the phrase, with emphasis: “What the hell’s the presidency for, if not to fight for causes you believe in?”
The president’s remarks on Thursday took on the critics of that landmark Civil Rights Act and other “big government” social programs championed by Johnson, including Medicare, Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act, the Immigration Act and the Fair Housing Act.
The laws Johnson championed now are as much a part of America’s democratic foundation as the Constitution and Bill of Rights, Obama said.
They opened the gates of opportunity, he said. “They swung open for you and they swung open for me.”
In an apparent reference to political opposition generated by his own Affordable Care Act, Obama noted that critics denounced Medicare socialized medicine at the time, but the program since has helped millions of Americans.
The president went on to recount Johnson’s poverty-stricken upbringing in Texas hill country, his sympathy for underdogs, his “iron will,” and legendary legislative skills.
“Passing laws was what LBJ knew how to do...He was charming when he needed to be, ruthless when required. He could wear you down with logic and he could horse trade,” Obama said.
“President Johnson liked power,” he said. “He liked the feeling of it, the wielding of it. But that hunger was harnessed and redeemed by a deeper understanding of the human condition, by a sympathy for the underdog.”
Obama’s own legislative efforts largely have been thwarted by a gridlocked Congress, and his speech reflected his frustration with the incremental pace of change during his administration.
“Those of us who have had the singular privilege to hold the office of the presidency know well that progress in this country can be hard and it can be slow, frustrating and sometimes you’re stymied,” he said.
“The office humbles you,” Obama said. “You’re reminded daily that in this great democracy, you are but a relay swimmer in the currents of history, bound by decisions made by those who came before, reliant on the efforts of those who will follow to fully vindicate your vision.
“But the presidency also affords a unique opportunity to bend those currents_by shaping our laws and by shaping our debates; by working within the confines of the world as it is, but also by re-imagining the world as it should be.”