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Charles Laffiteau's Bigger Picture

Last update - Thursday, May 14, 2009, 12:01 By Charles Laffiteau

Although President Obama fumbled the hand-off of his economic stimulus package to House Democrats, the Republican leaders in Congress were unable to score any points and the President eventually succeeded in pushing his deal over the goal line. But I also suspect he learned a valuable lesson here which may serve him well in future contests with legislators on Capitol Hill.

As a student of history, Obama might do well to take some cues from another former president who held a Master’s degree in the art of bending Congress to his will. While he isn’t one of America’s most revered leaders, former Democratic President Lyndon Johnson was probably America’s most successful in terms of getting legislation through Congress.
After Johnson won the 1964 election in one of the biggest landslides in presidential history, he began his first 100 days with a filibuster-proof two-thirds majority of Democrats in both chambers of Congress. It was during his second 100 days that Congress passed all of Johnson’s landmark ‘Great Society’ legislation, including federal education aid, the Voting Rights Act and Medicare.
While Obama doesn’t have the same advantages Johnson had in 1965, several factors that he should nonetheless consider explain why President Johnson was more successful than others in getting Congress to do his bidding.
First of all, one of the keys to Johnson’s legislative success was that he never took anything for granted. Despite his overwhelming majorities in Congress, Johnson always anticipated a tough battle on every single bill.
While Obama doesn’t have the Congressional experience that Johnson had, he has assembled a White House staff that has comparable amounts of experience as well as long-standing relationships with many Congressional leaders. They can help President Obama forge the ties and cut the deals that will be needed if Obama wants to see his other major legislative proposals turned into law.
Another advantage President Johnson had that Obama will not be able to use as freely when seeking Congressional support is trading ‘pork barrel’ grants for votes on key pieces of legislation. This long-standing practice has come under increasing scrutiny from the media and watchdogs in recent years and is now considered unsavoury by many voters and quite a few politicians.
While it is still too soon in President Obama’s first term for him to be taking stubborn legislators to the woodshed like Johnson did, he must nonetheless be prepared to do so when the time comes, lest he be perceived by Congress as weak. In the meantime, though, President Obama has already demonstrated that he isn’t above using one of Johnson’s other favourite tactics; the personal touch.
President Johnson always treated every member of Congress as if he or she was the centre of the universe, and insisted that his staffers return any representative’s or senator’s telephone call within 10 minutes “or else”. Obama has made similar demands of his staff and, like Johnson, has already spent many hours showering Congress with attention.
If Obama can be half as successful as Johnson was in his second 100 days, then I see a bright future for his presidency and his party. Next week I’ll discuss the much dimmer future I see for the Republican Party.

Charles Laffiteau is a lifelong US Republican from Dallas, Texas who is currently pursuing a PhD research programme in Environmental Studies at Dublin City University

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