Obama learning from LBJ, according to presidential historian Doris Kearns GoodwinHistorians in the News
Air Force One is a favorite tool presidents use to inspire and overawe. With much guffawing and backslapping, recalcitrant lawmakers are led to a luxurious cabin where they are granted a presidential audience and bestowed with swag, like cuff links with the presidential seal (Johnson gave away plastic busts of himself). Dennis Kucinich, seven-term congressman from Ohio and potential vote-switcher for health reform, was invited aboard Air Force One a couple of weeks before the climactic vote in the House. He had dealt with Presidents Clinton and Bush before, but Obama was different. The president was sitting in shirt sleeves behind a desk, computer to one side, notepad and pen at the ready. "He doesn't twist arms," recalls Kucinich. Rather, the president quietly listened. He was "all business," and sat patiently while Kucinich expressed his concerns, which Obama already knew. Then the president laid out his own arguments. Kucinich wasn't persuaded by the president, he told NEWSWEEK. But he voted for the bill because he did not want the presidency to fail, and he was convinced Obama would work with him in future.
A president's first year in office is often a time for learning. The harshest lessons are beginners' mistakes, like the Bay of Pigs fiasco for JFK. The real key is to figure out how to use the prestige of the office to get things done: when to conserve your political capital, and when and how to spend it. Judging from Obama's campaign, which revolutionized politics with its ability to tap grassroots networks of donors and activists, many expected President Obama to go over the heads of Congress and mobilize popular passions to achieve his top priorities. But on what may be his signature issue, that wasn't really the case....
Even on domestic issues, Obama may be playing a more subtle game than is readily apparent. Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recalls that when she met with candidate Obama in 2007, she expected to talk about his hero Lincoln, the subject of Goodwin's book Team of Rivals. Yet he also quizzed her and her husband, former Kennedy and Johnson speechwriter Richard Goodwin, about LBJ. He was interested in learning about Johnson's philosophy for dealing with Congress. Goodwin says she now realizes that by working so closely and deferentially with Congress on health care, Obama was taking a page from LBJ's oft-expressed philosophy: "If they're with you at the takeoff, they'll be with you in the landing."...
Goodwin also expects Obama to have a stronger appetite for change now that he's had one big success. "Once you've achieved something that everyone admits is a historic achievement, it does something, I think, inside a president's heart," she says. "LBJ said after he got the Civil Rights Act through in 1964, knowing that he had done something that would be remembered in time only emboldened him to want to do more, because the feeling was so extraordinary…cThe next year, when he proposed voting rights, people around him said, 'No way, you have to let the country heal'…cjust as people might be saying that about Obama. My guess is that what happens when you feel that sense of fulfillment inside is that it makes you remember what the presidency is about, to use power to change the lives of people in a positive way. It will only, it seems to me, make it more likely that he will continue now to go forward with the rest of his agenda."...
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