Does Obama Need to Find His Inner LBJ?

Analysts debate whether the president needs to change tactics to achieve goals.

Posted: 04/30/2013 10:45 AM EDT
Does Obama Need to Find His Inner LBJ?

Politics is a dirty business in which putting a little something-something on the table to get a lawmaker to vote a certain way or even a bit of force when necessary once counted for a lot. In the olden days, a president could tempt members of Congress with a bit of pork in the form of funding for a bridge or some other special project back home. Schmoozing over a cocktail also helped get results.

But those days are over. Pork is taboo and President Obama doesn't like to get dirty or socialize much with Capitol Hill lawmakers, although in his second term he's been making more of an effort with the latter. His preferred method of persuasion is stepping up to the bully pulpit to enlist voters to sway their representatives, and frequently used it in the weeks and days leading up to the Senate vote on gun control.

It's a tried-and-true tactic that proved successful for Ronald Reagan when he "convinced" Democrats to support major tax cuts. Lyndon B. Johnson was famous for using any means necessary, from threats to patronage, to push through legislation. Many believe that he could not have passed landmark civil rights legislation without some arm-twisting.

Obama wasn't so lucky and in the end couldn't muster up the 60 votes required to pass legislation supported by 90 percent of Americans. And while he pointed his finger at Congress and said "shame on you," his critics suggested the time had come for Obama to find his inner LBJ and get a lot tougher with uncooperative lawmakers.

The president joked about it during the White House Correspondents' Dinner last weekend.

"Maureen Dowd said I could solve all my problems if I were just more like Michael Douglas in The American President," he said. "Michael, what's your secret, man? Could it be that you were an actor in an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy?"

In the real world, as he has learned firsthand, it can be extremely difficult to accomplish much when dealing with a divided government.

"Obama laid out a fairly progressive agenda in his inaugural and State of the Union address, but I think he understood that it wasn't going anyplace with Republicans in Congress," said Robert Smith, a political scientist at San Francisco State University. "I think he had a little bit of hope for gun control and immigration reform, but I'm not sure either one of those will pass."

So, what's a president to do?

Not what he's been doing, said George Mason University political scientist Michal Fauntroy. But with a new battle over the nation's debt limit and the tax code about to start brewing, Obama is going to need to figure it out quickly.

Fauntroy suggested that the president needs some consiglieres on Capitol Hill.

"This is an example of how being a Washington outsider hurts, because the president doesn't have the longstanding relationships with some of the people he would need to lean on, like Johnson did in the 1960s," Fauntroy said. "He'd been Senate majority leader for years, and had a lot of relationships with a lot of people that he was able to lean on to get some things done with people who might not otherwise do it."

In addition, Fauntroy said, his problem is compounded by the fact that there are lawmakers who are simply dead set against supporting anything that Obama does. He added that Obama needs "some people who've been around the block and help him twist arms" and he's running out of time.

Talk of 2016 has already begun, but David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, thinks the pessimism that has followed the gun control vote is premature.

"For the past 10 years, the debate on gun control in this country was [non-existent] and now you have a lot of people, including some Republicans, advocating for stricter gun laws," Bositis said, noting how poll numbers for one Democrat who voted against the measures are tanking, but surging for a Republican lawmaker who co-authored one.

He also believes that immigration reform still has a lot of momentum, especially since several Republican lawmakers have thrown their support behind it.

"Time is working against Republicans in terms of demographics and policy," said Bositis. "When the Affordable Care Act goes into full effect, for example, there are going to be a lot of people who like it."

Smith believes the immigration debate could go either way.

"I'd say it's 50-50 because the hardcore Republican base both leaders and ordinary people are still very, very skeptical about legalizing and enfranchising huge numbers of people who are probably going to vote against you," Smith said.

 

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