During the 1966 Machinists union strike against five major airlines — United, TWA, Eastern, Northwest and National — then-President Johnson called both sides to the White House to reach a contract settlement. Just before he went to the microphones to announce that the strike that had crippled air transportation had been resolved, he turned to the Washington attorney who represented the airlines, grabbed him by the lapels, lifted him onto his toes and pointed out that he hoped the five airlines appreciated the fact that he had saved their combined rear ends. His language was more colorful; the attorney said later that he was shaken by the power of the man.
That first contract was rejected by the union, but shortly thereafter a deal was accepted and, once again, by sheer force, Johnson had been successful. Johnson was a tough man who knew how to use — and enjoyed using — power. He had been a powerful Senate majority leader and controlled Congress, and generally was able to accomplish what he wanted by twisting a few arms to the breaking point. It helped that during his presidency, both houses of Congress were controlled by the Democratic Party.
Political pundits and other recent critical voices, even from supporters of President Obama, contend that this president’s inability to get even watered-down legislation passed that would expand background checks on gun purchases was clear evidence that he didn’t know how to use the power of the presidency. He even lost four Democrats in the Senate vote that died because he was unable to amass enough votes to prevent a threatened Republican filibuster.
The four Democrats who sided with Republicans did so, it has been argued, without any fear of retaliation from the White House. The contention is that no Democratic senator would ever have had the temerity to do that when Johnson was president. He knew 1,001 ways to threaten or charm a wayward congressman.
Robert Dallek, a historian and biographer of President Johnson, was quoted in The New York Times as saying that Obama seemed “inclined to believe that sweet reason is what you need to use with people in high office.” He said that what Johnson believed was “what you need to do is to back people up against the wall.” Obama temperament of reason “raises questions about his powers of persuasion.”
What too many of Obama’s critics fail to acknowledge is that this is a different time in history, and it is doubtful that Lyndon Johnson could be Lyndon Johnson in the present hostile atmosphere in Congress and throughout the country. Johnson didn’t have an entrenched National Rifle Association terrifying lawmakers with its deep pockets and string of successes in defeating congressmen seen as being anti-gun. And that is without mentioning the hostile demands of the Tea Party.
Also, the more cerebral Obama differs from his most recent predecessors. He doesn’t seem to relish the give and take of politics, and hasn’t spent sufficient time in establishing relationships with members of Congress, even in his own party. In recent weeks the White House has begun a charm offensive, finding time for the president to meet and dine with members of Congress. Hosting the female members of Congress to a dinner was a noticeable beginning. But he showed his frustration at a recent press conference when he was asked if he felt he “still had enough juice to get the rest of your agenda through Congress.”
In response, a not-amused Obama said that maybe he should “just pack up and go home,” dismissing the idea that it was his responsibility to get lawmakers to behave.
What Obama has ignored is the power of the White House. Even the most recalcitrant member of Congress is in awe when invited to the White House. Ronald Reagan set the standard for understanding the significance of the social power of the White House. Members of his Cabinet were also active on the Washington social circuit — at black-tie galas, charity events and Kennedy Center openings. Where Johnson threatened, Reagan charmed, and that charm was effective.
It is doubtful that Obama will ever exercise the muscle power of a Lyndon Johnson or the amiability of Ronald Reagan, but if he is going to have an impact on history, like it or not, he will have to play a better game of politics. If he doesn’t get a solid hand on his presidency, his effectiveness over the next three and a half years will be diminished. It may be, however, that in a country so divided it might be difficult for any president to deal with Congress.
Chuck Conconi is a veteran Washington journalist.