President Barack Obama pauses while speaking at the LBJ Presidential Library during the Civil Rights Summit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act, April 10, 2014, in Austin, Texas.
Carolyn Kaster/AP

President Obama embraces Johnson’s legacy at Civil Rights Summit

Updated

AUSTIN, Texas – Democrats used to run away from Lyndon Baines Johnson the way people in movies run from Godzilla. Not anymore. 

“The story of America is the story of progress, and that’s true because of men like president Lyndon Baines Johnson,” Obama said Thursday in his keynote speech at the civil rights summit at the Johnson Presidential Library marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. “Because of the civil rights movement, because of the laws President Johnson signed, new doors of opportunity swung open for everybody. Not all at once, but they swung open. Not just blacks and whites, but also women and Latinos and Asians and Native Americans and gay Americans and Americans with a disability. They swung open for you and they swung open for me.”

Obama was the third president to speak at the summit in Austin, Texas, and the first to really embrace Johnson’s legacy with fervor.

That’s hardly surprising. As president, Jimmy Carter, long caricatured as a big government liberal, said “Government cannot eliminate poverty or provide a bountiful economy or reduce inflation or save our cities or cure illiteracy or provide energy.” When Ted Kennedy challenged Carter from the left, his aides told the New York Times that they didn’t want their candidate to be seen as “liberal,” because, “when you hear the word liberal, you think of worn-out programs, that old stuff that doesn’t work.” While Bill Clinton in 1996 was declaring that the “era of big government is over,” former Johnson adviser Joseph Califano Jr. was complaining that Clinton had left Johnson off “just about every list he recites of great Democratic Presidents.” 

That “old stuff” Kennedy’s aides mentioned was Johnson’s Great Society, a legacy tarnished by economic decline, ongoing racial tension and a disastrous, bloody war in Vietnam. For the next half century, Johnson became a symbol of nearly everything Democrats wanted to leave behind,as Republicans cast the Johnson era the moment everything went wrong in America

Yet as Iraq replaces Vietnam as the military debacle Americans remember most vividly, and a younger generation of Americans enters politics with less racial baggage and more faith in the ability of government to get things right, Democrats seem more willing to defend Johnson as a tragic but nonetheless heroic figure. Unlike his predecessors, Carter and Clinton, Obama hasn’t repudiated the Great Society, implicitly or otherwise. Thursday, he defended it by name. 

“In a time when cynicism is too often passed off as wisdom, it’s perhaps easy to conclude that there are limits to change; that we are trapped by our own history; and politics is a fool’s errand, and we’d be better off if we roll back big chunks of LBJ’s legacy, or at least if we don’t put too much of our hope, invest too much of our hope in our government,” Obama said. “I reject such thinking.  Not just because Medicare and Medicaid have lifted millions from suffering; not just because the poverty rate in this nation would be far worse without food stamps and Head Start and all the Great Society programs that survive to this day.  I reject such cynicism because I have lived out the promise of LBJ’s efforts.  Because Michelle has lived out the legacy of those efforts.  Because my daughters have lived out the legacy of those efforts.  Because I and millions of my generation were in a position to take the baton that he handed to us.”

Though Obama has said his favorite president is Abraham Lincoln, defending and building on Johnson’s legacy has defined much of Obama’s time in office. The first law Obama signed, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, targeted employment discrimination against women. His signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is aimed at plugging the hole in health insurance coverage left for those who lack health insurance and aren’t covered by Medicaid or Medicare.

By undermining the Defense of Marriage Act and allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the military openly, the Obama administration has brought America closer to the promise of equal rights for all Americans regardless of whom they love. Johnson appointed the first black Justice to the Supreme Court, Obama the first Latina Justice.

Even Obama’s setbacks echo the Johnson presidency. While Johnson ended racist restrictions on who could immigrate to the United States, Obama has sought–and failed–to extend a pathway to citizenship to unauthorized immigrants. The Obama Justice Department is now seeking to ensure that the promise of the Voting Rights Act is not voided by a Supreme Court more concerned with state’s rights than the right to vote. Obama has promised to end the war in Afghanistan, having escalated the U.S. military presence in a conflict begun by his predecessor.

Just as activist government was temporarily discredited by Johnson’s failures, its ongoing rehabilitation depends at least in part on successful implementation of the Affordable Care Act. 

There are no doubt ongoing pangs of fear about the path Obama has chosen among the Democratic centrists who reinvented the party in the Clinton era. Republicans are surely baffled by the need to fight a war they believed they were on the verge of winning in 1980, when Presidenet Ronald Reagan was first elected. But for better or worse, the Democratic Party is again Lyndon Johnson’s party. 

NOW With Alex Wagner, 4/10/14, 4:28 PM ET

Obama salutes LBJ's role in civil rights

NBC’s Maria Shriver joins Alex Wagner to discuss racism, sexism and human rights 50 years after LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act. Plus, Pres. Obama’s speech at the Civil Rights Summit.

Civil Rights and Civil Rights Summit

President Obama embraces Johnson's legacy at Civil Rights Summit

Updated