By Justin Sink
President Obama will pay tribute to the work of former President Lyndon Johnson and look to link his domestic policy agenda to the struggle for civil rights in an address Thursday in Texas.
Obama’s keynote address at a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act will reflect on a movement that transformed the nation — and enabled his own political success as the first black president in American history.
"President Obama has deep appreciation for the effort that went into passing landmark civil rights legislation — an effort led by President Johnson, and a successful effort that will be forever to President Johnson’s credit," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday.
"I think it's fair to say there is a connection between the passing of that legislation, and the fact that Barack Obama is president of the United States says a lot about America,” Carney said.
But the president will also talk about what comes next in the fight for civil rights and how the country can build on the legislative accomplishments of the past century, senior administration officials say.
While his speech has not been finalized, the president is expected to argue that the push for racial equality is unfinished and that passing laws alone can't change minds.
Obama will echo remarks he made last summer during the anniversary celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech, in which he argued leaders must fight for “not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity.”
In that speech, Obama said the “great unfinished business” of the civil rights era was providing economic equality and opportunity and gains made by civil rights leaders required "constant vigilance, not complacency.”
"In too many communities across this country, in cities and suburbs, the shadow of poverty casts over our youth, their lives a fortress of substandard schools and diminished prospects, inadequate healthcare and perennial violence,” Obama said in August.
The president won't unveil new policy proposals or initiatives, but he will draw parallels with his existing proposals and discuss ways in which his administration is looking to address inequalities.
Attorney General Eric Holder, in a speech to the National Action Network convention Wednesday in New York, discussed ways in which the administration was looking to "recalibrate" the government to make it fairer.
"In far too many places, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps individuals, devastates families, and weakens communities," Holder said. "It is long past time for us to break this cycle."
But while the White House believes Obama's policy agenda would benefit from being aligned with the civil rights movement, the staging of the event at the Johnson Presidential Library might welcome unfavorable comparisons between the two.
Johnson, a legislative mastermind and former Senate majority leader, was able to usher the Civil Rights Act, and later the Voting Rights Act, through a bitterly divided Congress, above the filibusters and objections of Southern lawmakers opposed to the bill.
That record of achievement contrasts unfavorably with Obama, who has seen his legislative agenda marred in partisan gridlock ever since Democrats lost control of the House in 2010. Despite a dominating reelection victory, the president has seen little progress with his efforts on immigration reform, universal pre-K, or infrastructure and jobs programs.
White House officials defend Obama's record, arguing that Johnson enjoyed one of the largest Democratic congressional majorities in history and had tools like earmarks and patronage at his disposal as he looked to whip votes. And, they say, party polarization has made reaching across-the-aisle to compromise more difficult.
“The nature of politics has changed,” Jennifer Palmieri, the White House communications director, told The New York Times. “The electorate is more polarized. I think, often, members of Congress are more concerned with how the voter on the more enthusiastic side of their party is going to react than they would have 50 years ago. That’s a real change.”
Another senior administration official noted dryly that there’s only one moderate Republican left in the Senate: Maine's Susan Collins.
Officials were also defensive of Obama's record, saying that, when Democrats controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress, he was able to affect more significant change.
One official pointed to the Affordable Care Act, saying ObamaCare would rank up with the legislative accomplishments of Johnson or President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs.
In an interview with The New Yorker published earlier this year, Obama said the political culture had changed since Johnson's Great Society proposals.
“The appetite for tax-and-transfer strategies, even among Democrats, much less among independents or Republicans, is probably somewhat limited, because people are seeing their incomes haven’t gone up, their wages haven’t gone up," Obama said. "It’s natural for them to think any new taxes may be going to somebody else, I’m not confident in terms of how it’s going to be spent, I’d much rather hang on to what I’ve got.”
He also said that, while Johnson had accomplished great successes as president, "when he lost that historic majority, and the glow of that landslide victory faded, he had the same problems with Congress that most presidents at one point or another have."
"I say that not to suggest that I’m a master wheeler-dealer, but rather to suggest that there are some structural institutional realities to our political system that don’t have much to do with schmoozing," Obama said.
Obama won't be the only American president to participate in the 50th anniversary celebration. His predecessor, former President George W. Bush, will speak after him on Thursday.
Bill Clinton spoke on Wednesday night, and on Tuesday, Jimmy Carter complained "too many people are at ease" with ghettoization and high black unemployment rates.
"We're pretty much dormant now," Carter said. "We accept self-congratulations about the wonderful 50th anniversary — which is wonderful — but we feel like Lyndon Johnson did it, and we don't have to do anything anymore."