Think Donald Trump is a one-off? Not quite -- in many ways, he appears a successor to LBJ.
Following the unprecedented election of Donald J. Trump, many continue to look for precedents. The real estate magnate’s intervention with Carrier reminded columnist Peggy Noonan of JFK’s engagement with the steel industry. Others have likened Trump’s unlikely campaign to that of another celebrity who upset the established order – Ronald Reagan.
The better comparison may be with Lyndon Baines Johnson. LBJ was a crude, rude and not especially popular president who got things done. Unlike President Obama, Johnson was willing to roll up his sleeves and jawbone legislators and business leaders in order to get bills passed and to move the country forward. That’s how he was able to sign civil rights legislation in an era when opposition to racial equality came mainly from Republicans but also from vehement members of his own party – the Southern Democrats. He made life impossible for his foes, bullying and wheedling until the bills passed, in the process forever changing the makeup of the Democratic Party.
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Trump is engaged in something similar. He is already changing the discourse between the corporate world and the Republican Party. In calling out CEOs for ignoring the welfare of their own workers by moving operations overseas, by threatening retaliatory measures against firms that flee the country, and by opposing trade deals like the TPP largely crafted by corporate titans, he is upending the Chamber of Commerce-GOP partnership that has shaped economic policy for decades.
As a result of his unconventional stances on trade deals and a higher minimum wage, for example, Trump has attracted millions of blue collar workers and burrowed deep into Democrat strongholds. At the same time, his unyielding stance on illegal immigration, indifference to the progressive social agenda and aversion to political correctness weakened his grip on college-educated women, the majority of whom voted for Romney in 2012.
Both Trump and LBJ follow aspirational, attractive, but not especially productive presidents whose youth and inexperience contrast with their own age and resumes. For both, succeeding popular figures like JFK and Obama dampen their initial welcome, and especially from the frosty media. Just as Johnson could never be forgiven for filling the shoes of the fallen JFK, so too Trump will bear the hostility of liberals disappointed that Hillary was no Obama.
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LBJ took office in 1963, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and in his five years in office put in place important underpinnings of the social safety net we have today, including Medicare, Medicaid, and Head Start. He laid out an agenda for creating the “Great Society” for all Americans, and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Though ultimately felled by the Vietnam War, Johnson is considered to have engineered a highly successful domestic agenda.
Johnson had shifting popular opinion backing these accomplishments. Princeton professor Julian Zelizer credits Johnson’s success to the coming together of several forces, including the Civil Rights Movement, a strong union force and also “liberal religious activism,” which began to sway Republican hold-outs. On perhaps the thorniest issue, Zelizer writes, “One of the reasons Midwestern Republicans agreed to end the Southern civil rights filibuster was that religious leaders who held great sway in their communities, were aggressively lobbying them to come to the side of civil rights.”
Today, Trump has a similar groundswell of support for his opposition to unfavorable trade agreements and wage-deflating illegal immigration. He also is supported by popular anger at Obamacare, and by numerous foreign policy initiatives – especially the Iran deal – that most Americans dislike. More generally, there is widespread antipathy to the status quo in Washington; when Trump promises to “Drain the Swamp,” people cheer.
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Of course, there are many differences between Trump and LBJ. Most obvious is that Johnson’s ascent into the Oval Office was the conclusion of a long political career. Trump, on the other hand, is a political neophyte. But that need not hinder his program; the president-elect is choosing cabinet officials ready to go to work. Betsey DeVos knows what kind of school reforms might improve our public education system. Tom Price has already crafted a replacement for Obamacare; Wilbur Ross knows exactly what kind of trade agreement might work for American workers.
There is no doubt that Trump will be willing to work alongside them.
Trump’s activism has already been on display, in negotiating with Carrier Corporation to keep jobs in Indiana. His willingness to talk to the CEO of the company and bargain for jobs has earned the derision of The New York Times, but plaudits from Americans hungry for a president who will intervene on their behalf. Like LBJ, and in stark contrast to Obama, Trump will not be afraid to get his hands dirty.
President Obama continues to enjoy high approval ratings, even though the country voted to reject his successor and his policies. He campaigned energetically, telling voters that his legacy hung in the balance. He is correct, but the fragility of his accomplishments is his fault. He has famously rarely visited with members of Congress – including members of his own party – much less attempted to persuade them to come aboard his proposals. Instead, he relied on executive orders and sweeping regulations to further his agenda. As we are now seeing, those measures can be tossed overboard; there’s a reason for working with Congress.
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After Obama prevailed in the disastrous 2013 budget negotiations, Senator John McCain, who voted with the president, complained that “a lot of us are resentful that he didn’t negotiate as hard as we think he could have or should have.” He also advised Obama to “sit down with your adversaries and get things worked out. If you don't, obviously you're not going to be a successful president."
Being willing to engage, to bully and cajole does not guarantee Trump a successful presidency; but if he can muster support for lower taxes on businesses and a regulatory climate that rejuvenates entrepreneurship and innovation, he will be well on his way, and he will take the GOP Congress along for the ride.