Obama, Congress, And The Need For Toughness

President Obama is known for his consensus-building style. But does he have the stomach for the tactics to get his agenda passed? President Lyndon Johnson went one-on-one with dissenting congressmen and threatened to end their careers unless they toed the party line. Would those tactics fly today? In the wake of an unprecedented health-care summit this week, host Guy Raz talks with historian Robert Dallek about how tough presidents have to be.

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(Soundbite of music)

GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

When the president hosted lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to talk health care this past week, he may have unintentionally created a new presidential tradition: The Televised Summit.

Mr. Obama invited Republican critics and the cameras into Blair House, the guesthouse right next to the White House, to see if he could find some common ground with opponents of his health care plan.

President BARACK OBAMA: If we're not engaging in sort of the tit-for-tat and trying to score political points during the next several hours, that we might be able to make some progress.

RAZ: The differences of course were not bridged. No one was persuaded either way. And some political strategists are now wondering whether President Obama's approach is too friendly. Simply put: Could he stand to learn a thing or two from Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon.

Presidential historian Robert Dallek might have the answer.

Welcome to the program.

Professor ROBERT DALLEK (History, Boston University; Author, "Harry S. Truman"): Thank you. Nice to be with you.

RAZ: Is there any historical precedent for what took place at Blair House this week?

Prof. DALLEK: Yeah. Well, you know, presidents always called in leaders of the Congress and they would meet with these leaders privately. But to have televised sessions in which a president was pressuring congressmen, senators to sign on to a major piece of legislation, that's unprecedented.

RAZ: I want to play a brief clip. This is an exchange between President Obama and John McCain.

Pres. OBAMA: This would probably be a good time to turn it over to Secretary Sebelius who

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Could I just say, Mr. President, the American people care about what we did and how we did it.

Pres. OBAMA: Well

Sen. MCCAIN: And I think we've not - and it's a subject that I think

Pres. OBAMA: May I

Sen. MCCAIN: we should discuss and I thank you.

Pres. OBAMA: They absolutely do care about it, John. And

RAZ: Robert Dallek, can you recall a time when legislators were able to interact with the president in such an informal way? I mean, it's almost like the way they do in Britain

Prof. DALLEK: Yes.

RAZ: with the Prime Minister.

Prof. DALLEK: Yes, that's what I was thinking. That it's like question and answer session in the parliament.

RAZ: I mean, has this ever happened, as far as you

Prof. DALLEK: Well, it happens all the time in private. When Lyndon Johnson was trying to get civil rights passed, he called in George Wallace from Alabama. Sat him down in the Oval Office and chewed him out.

RAZ: We often hear parallels between what Lyndon Johnson did with Medicare and Medicaid and what President Obama is trying to do with health care. But Lyndon Johnson, I mean, he would strong-arm legislators. He was going to steamroll you.

Prof. DALLEK: He was going to steamroll you. He was going to push you into the corner. You know, there was the famous Johnson treatment that he'd bend you over. And somebody once said, you knew when Lyndon began breathing in your mouth, that you were finished. So

RAZ: I mean, he was a - literally a towering figure.

Prof. DALLEK: Oh, yeah. Six foot three and a half inches tall, and he would tower over people and he would use that physical size to intimidate.

RAZ: If Obama tried to do that or even George W. Bush, if they tried to do that today, they couldn't. Right?

Prof. DALLEK: It'd be front page news. It would be a scandal, so to speak. But it is such a different period in our history in the relations between the president and the Congress.

And the difficulty I feel that President Obama is having is creating a consensus. Consensus is vitally important if you're going to pass some major piece of legislation. He's having a terrible time doing it.

RAZ: I mean, do you think that looking back on all the presidents you've written about, do you think this president has the capacity for the kind of tough tactics that you need to get things done in Washington?

Prof. DALLEK: Oh, Guy. I think he's learning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. DALLEK: And my guess is now that what you're going to see is a strong-arm approach to the Republicans. And the Republicans are going to scream bloody murder as a consequence.

RAZ: Ronald Reagan made God bless America or God bless the United States of America an almost compulsory signoff in presidential speeches. All presidents use it now. He was really the one who started using it regularly.

Prof. DALLEK: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: George W. Bush introduced the flag lapel pin.

Prof. DALLEK: Yes.

RAZ: Has President Obama brought in a new tradition that every subsequent president will have to take part in? I mean, a televised Q and A session with the opposition.

Prof. DALLEK: Yeah. This may well be a development that future presidents are going to feel compelled

RAZ: I mean, the public is going to expect it, right?

Prof. DALLEK: They might. Well, you see, the way they expect debates. John Kennedy and Richard Nixon first televised presidential debate, and ever since then, you can't escape having debates. So this may have created a standard, a precedent, and I think its fine. This is what democracy is and too much of it in the past has been done behind closed doors.

RAZ: That's Robert Dallek. He's a presidential historian. His latest book is a biography called "Harry S. Truman."

Robert Dallek, thank you.

Prof. DALLEK: My pleasure.

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