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WWJD: What Would Johnson Do?—A Commentary by Aaron Zelinsky ’10

The following commentary was posted on The Huffington Post on February 10, 2010.

WWJD: What Would Johnson Do?
By Aaron Zelinsky ’10

The Senate is strangling the Obama administration. Everything from high profile legislation to mid-level appointees is held up, often because of little more than pet peeves. Many members of the GOP now practice obstructionism for the sake of obstructionism: They are, therefore they filibuster. In Washington, the Senate hold has become as commonplace as lobbyists and monuments.

It's time President Obama looked hard in the mirror and asked himself the question so many have asked before him: What would Johnson do?

At first blush, Lyndon Johnson may not seem like the best political guide for the present moment. The last thing Obama wants is for Afghanistan to become his Vietnam. But no chief executive knew the Senate better than Johnson, himself a legendary Senate Majority Leader. And Vietnam notwithstanding, LBJ produced domestic policy accomplishments that were lasting and substantial -- exactly what President Obama aspires to.

Here are LBJ's lessons for Obama:

To Make an Omelet, You've Got To Break Some Eggs. LBJ understood that legislative majorities were fundamentally impermanent, and that political capital should be spent rather than dissipated. When he signed the Civil Rights Act, LBJ supposedly remarked that "we have lost the South for a generation." Regardless of whether he actually uttered these words, LBJ knew full well what he was doing. He decided that passing the Civil Rights Act was worth the future political hit.

Thus far, the Obama Administration has been reticent to spend political capital. The Democrats are like the car-enthusiast who spends all of his time working on his sports coup without ever taking it for a spin. No one cares how fast you can go from zero to sixty if you never leave the driveway.

Determine Who Will Play Ball. When Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act, he did so in the face of a fierce filibuster led by Democrats. In order to break the filibuster, Johnson turned to moderate Republicans. President Obama should recognize that, unless Harry Reid is willing to drastically change course, there isn't much this Administration can accomplish without at least a few Republicans.

In terms of appointments, there are many senators who believe in allowing executive branch nominees to receive an up-or-down vote. President Obama should talk personally with Senators Orrin Hatch, Olympia Snow, Judd Gregg, Lamar Alexander, Lindsey Graham, Richard Lugar, George Voinovich, and Susan Collins. Together, they can likely negotiate an end to filibusters on many of his appointments, most of whom are noncontroversial nominees whose confirmation is essential to effective government function.

Allow Your Opponents to Save Face. LBJ realized that those whom he courted needed political cover when they supported him. Johnson couldn't pass the Civil Rights Act without the Senate Minority Leader, Everett Dirksen. Rather than buy off Dirksen with pork, Johnson sought to co-opt him, instructing Hubert Humphrey to "let him have a piece of the action," and be sure to let him "look good all the time." When Dirksen introduced a substitute bill in the Senate to end the filibuster, LBJ let Dirksen take the credit for being a statesman, while he pocketed the legislative victory.

In Obama's case, the Louisiana Purchase and Cornhusker Kickback allowed Senators Landrieu and Nelson to "have a piece of the action," but these buyoffs didn't let them "look good all the time." The White House has to give fence-sitters plausible policy-based cover for changing positions. The easiest way to accomplish this is by negotiating pragmatic changes to pending legislation for which the fence-sitters can take credit.

Be the Head of Government, Not Just the Head of State. In the United States, the President is both the head of state and the head of government. LBJ recognized this fact, and he wasn't afraid to get down and dirty with the legislative branch, arm twisting, cajoling, and sometimes bullying senators to vote his way.

So far, President Obama has been a good head of state, speaking eloquently at home and rebuilding U.S. credibility overseas. However, Obama has not been willing to do the heavy-lifting of domestic legislative governance, the nitty-gritty of meeting with legislators to gain their support. Recent sessions with members of Congress regarding the jobs bill are a good start, but Obama needs to do more politicking, as personally distasteful as it may be.

At the end of the day, LBJ acknowledged how hard it was to be constructive, colorfully summarizing: "Any jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a good carpenter to build one." If President Obama wants to be an good carpenter, he must ask himself: What would Johnson do?