LBJ: The Greatest Domestic President Since FDR?

FDR was the greatest US President of the 20th Century.

There are very few who would dispute this statement. The 32nd President won 4 elections, built the New Deal coalition, ended the Great Depression by instituting a New Deal, and led the USA to victory in WW2. He is consistently ranked by scholars as among the top 3 Presidents, alongside Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.

In many ways, Lyndon B Johnson, the 36th President of the United States, upheld and carried on FDR’s legacy of state-funded assistance for the poor and needy, and generally carried out sweeping and lasting reforms to US society.

His bold domestic crusades are in direct contrast to his leadership during the Vietnam war, which was often indecisive or simply misguided. In fact, Vietnam has tarnished his reputation to the point of obscuring some fairly monumental achievements.

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It may be contentious, but on the basis of the points below one could argue that LBJ was the greatest domestic President since FDR. These can be grouped broadly around 2 topics – the Great Society and Civil Rights

The Great Society

LBJ claimed working as a road labourer in his youth gave him an acute understanding of poverty and a conviction to eliminate it. He recognised that escaping poverty

Requires a trained mind and a healthy body. It requires a decent home, and the chance to find a job.

LBJ possessed an exceptional ability to convert rhetoric into substantive legislation.

As a Southern populist Congressman Johnson carried out this vision. His strong liberal record was defined by bringing water and electricity to Texas’s impoverished 10th District as well as slum clearance programs.

As President, Johnson took this zeal for helping the poor to a national level. He also had broader ideas about how to set structures in place to secure the natural and cultural heritage of the country, and generally to eradicate inequality. Listed are just some of the reforms encapsulated by the Big Society tag:

  • The Elementary and Secondary Education Act: provided significant and necessary funding for American public schools.
  • Medicare and Medicaid: Mediacre was created to offset the costs of healthcare for the nation’s elderly people. In 1963, most elderly Americans had no health coverage. Medicaid provided assistance to the nation’s poor, many of whom had little access to medical treatment unless they were in a critical condition. Between 1965 and 2000 over 80 million Americans signed up for Medicare. It was certainly a factor in life expectancy climbing 10% between 1964 and 1997, and even more among the poor.
  • National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities: Used public funds in order to ‘create conditions under which the arts could flourish’
  • The Immigration Act: Ended immigrations quotas which discriminated by ethnicity.
  • Air and Water Quality Acts: Tightened pollution controls.
  • Omnibus Housing Act: Set aside funds for constructing low-income housing.
  • Consumer vs Commerce: A number of controls brought in to re-balance mismatch between big business and the American consumer, including truthful packaging measures and truth in lending to the homebuyer.
  • Headstart: Brought primary education to the poorest children.
  • Wilderness Protection Act: Saved 9.1 million acres of land from industrial development.

Civil Rights

Allen Matusow characterised Johnson as ‘a complex man notorious for his ideological insincerity.’

This certainly fits Johnson political careering, but it is safe to say that underpinning the various faces that Johnson wore around various groups was a sincere belief in racial equality.

Despite having his rise financed by bigoted men and having stood against every ‘black policy’ he was required to vote on in Congress, Johnson claimed that he ‘never had any bigotry in him.’ Certainly once assuming the Presidency he did more than any other to secure the welfare of black Americans.

By employing the dual-approach of asserting rights and applying corrective measures, he broke the back of Jim Crow for good.

In 1964 he worked with customary skill to destroy a filibuster in the Senate and so rescued Kennedy’s buried Civil Rights bill. He assembled a hitherto unforeseeable consensus of Southern Democrats and the Northern liberals, having broken the logjam in Congress over Kennedy’s tax cut (by agreeing to bring the annual budget in below $100 billion).

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In 1965 he responded to the ‘Bloody Sunday’ violence in Selma Alabama by having the Voting Rights Bill signed into law, a move which re-enfranchised black Southerners and empowered them to lobby for their welfare. Together with these legislative changes Johnson appointed Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court and more broadly initiated the affirmative action program for the federal government together with an intensive program to reconcile the South with integration.

On affirmative action, he said:

Freedom is not enough. You do not take a person who, fro years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him to the start line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others’, and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights.

A key example of this was the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which opened up public housing to all Americans, irrespective of race.

The positive effects of this initiative, alongside the Great Society reforms which disproportionately benefitted (poor) black Americans, were clear. For example, the purchasing power of the average black family rose by half over his Presidency.

Although it is arguable that growing black militancy in the mid-late 1960s, and the prospect of a race war, may have pushed LBJ to pursue Civil Rights legislation, it should be to his credit that he responded to a constitutional and moral imperative for change. He did benefit from the emotional impact of the Kennedy assassination, saying:

No memorial oration could more eloquently honour President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest passage of the Civil Rights Bill.

However it is clear he had a personal investment in change. After assuming the Presidentcy, on an early call to Ted Sorensen, who queried his pursuit of Civil Rights legislation, he rebutted, ‘What the hell is the Presidency for!?’

Alex Browne studied History at Kings College London and is an Assistant Editor at Made From History. He specializes in post-war history in the USA and Central America.