AUSTIN, Texas -- President Obama said Thursday that the country was still caught up in the kind of debates that marked the civil rights movement as he called on Americans to set aside cynicism and push for the ideals reflected in the Civil Rights Act.
As he offered a tribute to President Johnson at a 50th anniversary celebration of the law, Obama recalled the political gridlock and ideological division he faced -- and overcame.
“If some of this sounds familiar, it’s because today we’ve become locked in the same great debate, about equality and opportunity, and the role of government in ensuring each,” Obama said.
“Our society is still wracked with division and poverty,” he said, adding that “it’s easy to conclude that there are limits to change … that politics is a fool’s errand.”
“I reject such thinking,” he said. “I have lived out the promise of LBJ’s efforts. … Because of the civil rights movement, because of the laws that LBJ signed, new doors of opportunity swung open … they swung open for you and they swung open for me, and I’m standing here because of it.”
As Obama recounted the fights over Johnson’s Great Society programs, his address turned into a meditation on his own role in history.
In his keynote, Obama examined that question in a personal way, talking about Johnson’s mastery of the legislative process and his own frustrations in dealing with lawmakers.
“Sometimes you’re stymied. The office humbles you,” Obama said. “You’re reminded daily that in this great democracy you are but a relay swimmer in the currents of history.”
But he spoke hopefully about the power to “bend those currents … by shaping our laws and by shaping our debates.”
It is possible to achieve change by working “within the confines of our world as it is, but also by reimagining our world as it should be,” Obama said. “This was President Johnson’s genius.”
Five years into the presidency, Obama had mostly left Johnson unmentioned until the summit marking the anniversary of the civil rights laws that changed the face of America.
Advisors close to the president have bristled at comparisons between Johnson, a master at working Capitol Hill, and Obama, who openly admits that pretty much anything he supports is doomed in the divided Congress.
Civil rights veterans and historians have debated that Johnson-Obama comparison on the sidelines of the summit this week.
In Obama’s defense, scholars note that, in passing civil and voting rights bills, Johnson benefited from an increasingly powerful social movement and the growing consensus around racial equality.
“By the early 1960s, there was a moral consensus on what needed to be done on civil rights,” said H.W. Brands, a presidential historian at the University of Texas at Austin.
Thus, some veterans of the civil rights movement say Obama deserves more leeway in the analysis. Obama faces opposition that views him as “other,” said Julian Bond, an early organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a prominent civil rights leader.
Johnson, tasked with forging a coalition of moderate Republicans and Northern Democrats, “never faced anything like this, even when he was dealing with his most passionate opponents,” said Bond, now a professor at American University and the University of Virginia at Charlottesville.
And even Johnson saw the limits of his powers of persuasion. In the 1966 midterms, Democrats lost seats in Congress and Johnson began to feel backlash from lawmakers he had successfully won over, particularly when it came to funding the Great Society programs he had gotten passed.
But in his remarks to the summit Wednesday night, former President Clinton praised political courage that outlasts political capital.
“That is often the case with big votes that change millions of lives,” Clinton said. “I’ve had my fair share of tough phone calls to good people who lost their seats after we won this or that big measure by just a vote or two in the House or the Senate.”
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