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Finding His Inner Lyndon Johnson

Does Obama know how to pull the levers of power on Capitol Hill?

12:00 AM, Jun 25, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
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A recent Washington Post headline blared some unhappy news for the White House: "Obama Initiatives Hit Speed Bumps On Capitol Hill." Moving from popular campaign slogans like "change" to actual legislation is difficult. At one level, Obama understands this. "We've got a much longer journey to travel, and this is when it gets hard," he recently told a group of Democratic donors at a fundraiser.

Hard indeed. Congress opened the spigots of federal spending, producing a string of early victories on issues like stimulus and children's health insurance. But now the incline gets steeper. Cutting Medicare, increasing energy costs, choosing among financial regulators means creating losers--and tougher votes for Congress

This next phase requires moving from happy talk to hard choices. It means horse-trading and deal-cutting, and saying "no." Over the next several weeks, circumstances will test Obama's legislative prowess like never before. The question is: Will he find his inner Lyndon Johnson? Will he reach down Pennsylvania Avenue--like another former Senator who became president--and pull the levers of power like LBJ?

For many Americans this upcoming chapter in the Obama presidency also promises frustration and confusion. Why is "change" taking so long? Why is it so hard? Many thought just voting for someone who promised change meant it would happen.

Misconceptions about the nature of presidential power are the main culprits here. As political scientist Charles O. Jones writes in his book The Presidency in a Separate System, "The American presidency carries a burden of lofty expectations that are simply not warranted by the political or constitutional basis of the office."

Obama receives rock star media coverage--including what one pundit aptly described as the "Access Hollywoodization" of the White House--making it even harder for many Americans to understand that while presidents campaign alone, they share power with Congress once elected. Keeping a promise to change the health care system is different than taking the First Lady out on a date in Paris. The legislature is not 535 individuals sent to Washington to rubber stamp the White House agenda. They represent a co-equal branch of government with their own political goals and pledges to keep.

Winning the White House, according to Jones, "does not guarantee power in the American political system. Rather, it legitimizes the effort of a president to lead." Quoting President Johnson, Jones notes that electoral victory only establishes "the right to govern." Power sharing is a slow, arduous process of give and take. "By intent," Jones explains, "the U.S. government works within a set of limits designed to prevent it from working too well."

It's unclear if many of Obama's supporters or even the media completely understand these nuances. And if the president believes a lot of his own press coverage, he may not fully grasp it either.

How will we know if President Obama finds his inner LBJ? Here are four clues.

First, will he bend? As a former lawmaker, LBJ knew instinctively that Congress represents its own constituencies. And these politicians are more motivated to get reelected than to help the Obama White House. Sometimes these interests coincide. But often they don't--and therein lies the rub. A smaller health care bill? A less ambitious climate change proposal? That's what it might take to win.

Second, will he share credit? The president and Congress legislate together. The White House needs to acknowledge this reality and look for opportunities to highlight joint accomplishments. If Obama views Congress only as a tool to transact his agenda--or worse, if legislators think he sees Congress that way--they will balk, and he will lose. Kenneth E. Collier, in his book, Between the Branches, notes LBJ's skill in this area. He writes that Johnson often reached Senators before they even left a committee room to say, "thank you" via a phone call.

Third, does he play tough? We know he can. He's from Chicago, after all. But the White House must tread carefully in this power-sharing arrangement--particularly since the president's party also runs Congress. He needs balance. Use the tools of his office--White House meetings, public statements admonishing lawmakers for lack of action, promises to provide political support. Yet recognize that pushing hard can spur both action and animosity. Collier notes that Johnson tried aggressively to sway votes, but never threatened. "I know you want this program for your state and I want something too."