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LBJ and the Bully Pulpit


Ygelsias beat me to it, but as the new Caro indicates one person who didn’t accept the narrative that Lyndon Johnson got an impressive domestic agenda passed by using the BULLY PULPIT do get around Congress was…Lyndon Johnson. And LBJ didn’t believe this not only because he was a powerful congressional leader who was the protege of another powerful congressional leader, but because he also cut his political teeth as an FDR man. And he therefore knew that after the election in which FDR showed the immense power of the BULLY PULPIT by welcoming their hatred first FDR’s Court-packing initiative failed, and then very little legislation of importance passed for the remainder of his tenure, thwarted by the coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans who consistently stopped major social reform between 1938 and 1964.

LBJ’s skills and priorities mattered, because being an “affiliated” president at the height of the strength of a regime gave the agenda-setting powers of the presidency unusual importance, and since LBJ had extensive experience in Congress he (unlike, say, Clinton on health care) he was well aware that the idea that you could go over the head of Congress and impose your will was nonsense. And it’s not as if there was only one direction LBJ could have gone — an affiliated president can favor all parts of an affiliated coalition equally, and while Polk in a similar position decisively sided with the Slave Power Johnson on domestic policy advanced the agenda of the progressive elements of the Democratic coalition. (And LBJ is also a classic example, of course, of Skowronek’s argument that this is where coalitions collapse — on the one supporting civil rights and antipoverty legislation led to Southern conservatives leaving the Democratic coalition for good, and the need to keep important domestic constituencies on board — especially organized labor — contributed heavily to the Vietnam disaster that undermined the Great Society and also prevented LBJ from running for the nomination in 1968.) But where he was successful, LBJ took advantage of an unusually favorable opportunity; he didn’t succeed because he used the BULLY PULPIT to force crucial members of Congress to do things they didn’t want to do.

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  • Amok92

    So when do you change your handle to BULLY PULPIT PUNDIT?

  • R Johnston

    The President’s skills and priorities always matter. Not, of course, because the President can browbeat Congress into doing what he wants, but because in favorable circumstances the President can convince enough Congressmen to do what he wants, and even when circumstances aren’t favorable the President is uniquely situated to be able to set the terms of public policy debate and thereby make favorable circumstances more likely in the future.

    The President fighting the good fight isn’t primarily about the current fight; it’s about all the fights to come. It’s about the President being able to point to an inadequate malapportioned stimulus bill and say “I told you so; you should have listened to me; let’s do it right this time” rather than having the President constantly saying how the inadequate malapportioned stimulus bill he fully supported was just right. It’s about making sure that everyone realizes that a compromise is, in fact, a compromise and that the President’s opponents getting 90% of what they want while the nation gets 10% of what it needs is a loss for the President and the country.

    • This seems both wrong and misprioritized to me. Aside from whether or not a President is capable of effecting long term changes in public thinking and debate, when you’re at a moment when you reach what is likely to be your largest Congressional majority in a decade or so, it would obviously make sense to prioritize getting as much legislation passed in the short term as absolutely possible. Let the President become the Talk Radio Host in Chief once the other party takes Congress or once he becomes a lame duck.

    • joe from Lowell

      Name one.

      Name a President whose complaints about not getting what he want changed the political culture.

      • Jay C

        Well, Herbert Hoover, for one.

        Though the “changes” he got were probably not what he had expected, or wanted…

      • James E Powell

        I’m not in complete agreement with R Johnston, above, but I do not think you are fairly characterizing his argument.

        Isn’t there a consensus, or at least a widely shared argument, that FDR’s court packing plan resulted in a shift on the court that upheld New Deal legislation?

        Was FDR really trying to change the supreme court, or was he trying to make the point that a handful of 19th century plutocrats were preventing what the overwhelming majority of Americans wanted and needed?

        The argument that the ‘bully pulpit’ isn’t all that powerful is too often, on this blog and others, extended to argue that there is almost nothing that a president can do or say that can change public opinion or congressional behavior. I think that’s a bit much.

        • joe from Lowell

          FDR was really trying to stack the court, to get his current agenda through.

          The consequence of the court-packing scheme had absolutely no effect on Congressional or public opinion or behavior. It did intimidate the Court, however, but using an institutional challenge to change the behavior of a body that is shielded from public opinion is several steps removed from the Bully Pulpit. I agree 100% with the notion that a President can use inside moves to change the behavior of other political actors.

          • Scott Lemieux

            I should post separately about this, but the COurt-packing plan was not what caused the Court to back down. Roberts had already voted to uphold the Wagner Act before the 1936 elections, although the decision didn’t come down until 1937.

            • James E Powell

              Well the whole court didn’t back down, it was one or two, no? What did cause the change? I admit in advance that I know almost nothing about this, only that it happened.

            • Murc

              I would be interested in that post, Scott, because a lot of the history I’ve read has lead me to believe that it WAS the court-packing scheme that caused the Court to back down.

              That is, they were sufficiently frightened by the fact that a sitting President could even contemplate making a run at them, and that said run was regarded as politically legitimate by an enormous part of the country, they decided to do some re-evaluation that worked out in FDRs favor.

            • joe from Lowell

              I’d be interested to see that post.

              • Scott Lemieux

                Allright, later tonight or tomorrow, promise!

                • Murc

                  Wait, it’s that easy? Really?

                  Can you make Loomis start doing State Politicians again? Do we have that sort of power?

                • Ben

                  If we did Noon would post much more often than he does

              • James E Powell

                Here is Owen Roberts’s explanation for his vote in West Coast Hotel v. Parrish.

      • Scott Lemieux

        Name a President whose complaints about not getting what he want changed the political culture.

        Well, if Truman hadn’t lost on health care, it’s hard to see how we could have gotten single payer…

      • Murc


        Reagan’s actual record is one of accommodation with Congress at just about every turn, but his rhetoric in both his campaigns and during his tenure was very much along the lines of “Well, boys, we didn’t get the true conservative results we wanted because of those damn Democrats. Time to keep fighting on, because God and history are on our side.”

        And that was, you know, sort of an integral part of the ongoing and highly successful conservative effort to shift the country to the right?

        Although, to be sure, he was working on close concert with the entire conservative movement at the time. There’s something to be said for having a million third-party organizations ready to echo your message.

        • joe from Lowell

          And that was, you know, sort of an integral part of the ongoing and highly successful conservative effort to shift the country to the right?

          I’m glad you ended with a question mark, because that’s a very questionable claim. It’s just assuming your conclusion, that rhetoric is what moved the country to the right.

          • Murc

            Well, obviously you can’t JUST use rhetoric, but… that’s sort of how political movements work, yes? You talk to people, using… rhetoric, and convince them of the rightness of your cause? I mean, yes, conditions on the ground also matter, but the Republicans sure as hell didn’t get where they are by handing people a bunch of demographic and economic analyses and letting them draw their own conclusions.

            • You can’t really say “Reagan” without attaching Reagan to the entire network of wingnut media that has grown since that time. Which is to say, Reagan gets credited for a lot of things that are probably more appropriately attributed to Limbaugh.

      • partisan

        I don’t think this blog has a high opinion of Jacksonian banking policy, but Jackson did prevent rechartering the Bank of the United States against Congressional support, and under Polk the anti-bank forces did get their preffered solution of an Independent Treasury.

        • John

          Presidents of course can prevent legislation from becoming law, usually.

    • TT

      “The President fighting the good fight isn’t primarily about the current fight; it’s about all the fights to come.”

      I think that accurately captures the modern GOP’s institutional approach to politics, in the sense that it has enjoyed great success in continually shifting the debate rightward despite the ebb and flow of its electoral fortunes. However, I think you err in believing that it is accomplished by presidents offering rhetorical details about policy shortcomings to which relatively few citizens pay any attention. I think success has much more to do with a political party being institutionally unified around a specific agenda (the GOP is far more unified internally than the Democratic Party), and forcing the political system to shift accordingly.

  • Uncle Kvetch

    And LBJ didn’t believe this not only because he was a powerful congressional leader who was the protege of another powerful congressional leader, but because he also cut his political teeth as and FDR.


    And he therefore knew after the election in which FDR showed the immense power of the BULLY PULPIT by welcoming their hatred first his Court-packing initiative failed, and then very little legislation of importance passed for the remainder of his tenure


  • Aaron Baker

    Really, Lemieux, you’ve outdone yourself this time. Turn away from the keyboard, take 20 or so deep breaths, and then, please, include the missing connectives, verbs, nouns, whatever. We feel your passion–we really do; but we also want to understand what you’re passionate about.

  • joe from Lowell

    Ygelsias beat me to it,

    Yes, but where he merely misspelled words, you seem to have forgotten them entirely.

    • Davis X. Machina

      They’re correctly spelled though. Missing, but correctly spelled.

      And that makes all the difference between your genial host and that Yglesias fellow.

      • arguingwithsignposts

        How do we know they’re correctly spelled if they’re missing?

        but because he also cut his political teeth as and FDR

        Seriously what?

        • joe from Lowell

          How do we know they’re correctly spelled if they’re missing?

          How’s this? There is no reason to believe that the missing words are spelled incorrectly – not even a shred of evidence.

          • Malaclypse

            The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It would be irresponsible not to speculate.

  • Jim Lynch

    How bully any president’s message from the White House pulpit is regarded (of course) involves many factors.

    One factor in 1964 & 1965 was the tremendous good will extended LBJ as a direct consequence of the national trauma inflicted by JFK’s murder. I credit Johnson with effectively harnessing that good will, even as he masterfully conducted business with a congress that could ill afford to ignore it.

  • Joe

    The court packing thing was a special case involving a basic American principle on the independence of the judiciary. The basic theme here seems to be the limits of the presidency. The “bully pulpit” has some value, but it is but part of a wider whole.

  • bob mcmanus

    Got it already, jeez. I’m convinced.

    Obama is the impotent, irrelevant, immaterial President, pointless and useless.

    We are ruled by Congress, and any Justice that gets confirmed will be their choice, and nothing to do with the wet sack of oatmeal in the Oval Office.

    Foreign Policy will be decided in State and Defense with Obama going “Do I want to do that? Am I sure?”

    Obama can pose for Halo pictures and get another Nobel.

    • bob mcmanus

      And in order to get someone with skirt into the office in 2016, someone who doesn’t live by cowering excuses and believes they can “make a difference”, I think we need Romney in 2012.

      • Colin Day

        And in order to get someone with skirt into the office in 2016

        If you mean Hilary Clinton, wouldn’t that be someone with pantsuit?

        • Cody

          I find it hard to imagine any female running for President while wearing a skirt. Do female politicians wear skirts!?

    • It’s amazing how the people who get all huffy about this *always* fall back to nonsense like this.

    • joe from Lowell

      Yeah, Scott, your argument that the President has no influence over judicial appointments and foreign policy just got totally pwned!

      I can only assume that your understanding of just how weak this craven Obamapologetic is explains why you are so careful to couch it language about the passage of a domestic legislative agenda.

    • Scott Lemieux

      I’m glad that Bob was willing to pay us a visit all the way from the Planet Strawman.

  • James E Powell

    “I welcome their hatred” was not bully pulpit but political campaigning. There are differences and I think other politicians and the public get this

    And welcoming their hatred worked out very well for FDR and the Democrats, no?

    • Davis X. Machina

      It’s more like ‘I welcome their hatred, but more or less buy their take on the macroeconomic situation. How deep a second recessionary dip would you like?’

    • Scott Lemieux

      Yeah, in a razor-thin election like 1936 clearly that one speech made all the difference.

      • joe from Lowell

        I’ve been meaning to ask you something, Scott.

        You aren’t denying that political rhetoric has a meaningful effect on election outcomes, are you?

        • James E Powell

          I don’t know if that is what Scott is arguing, but there are many who appear to be arguing that and, more specifically, that it doesn’t matter what the president says, that Rick Santelli on a cable show that almost nobody watches can move millions, but the president may as well say nothing.

  • homunq

    BULLY PULPIT is the campaign trail. Where Obama has weakened his own hand by deep-sixing primary challenges to blue dogs.

    I know, that’s who he is. But the point is that part of the power of the office is the power to sway votes, not just executive power.

    • Andrew

      Of course you haven’t read the linked post, so I’ll excerpt it for you:

      They seemed to feel there were alternatives to giving Byrd what he wanted, he [LBJ] told the six economic advisers; there weren’t, and he gave them a lesson in political realities. You couldn’t get around the Senate, he said, telling them about a President, a President at the very height of his popularity, who had tried it, attempting in 1938 to unseat southern conservative senators by going into their states to campaign against them. “Of course, you could try to take it to the country. FDR tried that, with his tremendous majority, and got licked,” he said. “It wouldn’t work” if they tried it now, either.

      • Scott Lemieux

        Right. FDR correctly understood that getting more liberal members of Congress was the way you got better domestic policy. But there’s no easy way for the president to do that.

        There should be more primary challenges of Democratic candidates. But also note that primary challenges only move policy to the left if liberals can actually win elections. Given the malapportionment of the Senate the GOP can afford a lot more ideological purity.

        • homunq

          First, thanks for the excerpt, you’re right that I hadn’t read it and it’s absolutely relevant.

          Still, while there may be have been no easy way for FDR to make congress more liberal by a marginal shift of his actions, there is a long way between Obama’s margin and FDR’s. Also, like it or not, Obama’s air and ground campaigning power compared to locals is way, way better than FDR’s was in the same comparison.

          I think that as president, Obama has, if anything, pulled his party to the right on most issues (with gay issues being a commendable counterexample).

  • Manju

    on the one supporting civil rights and antipoverty legislation led to Southern conservatives leaving the Democratic coalition for good

    Going by the Senate’s Southern Dems, while LBJ was President, he only lost Strom Thurmond.

    Interestingly, the centerpiece of his War on Poverty occurred right after the 64cra…Jul 23rd 1964 (S.2642) Economic Opportunity Act.

    So 23 Southern Dems, including Byrd and Hayden, vote against cloture in 64. He looses 1. The remaining 22 go 11-11 on the subsequent legislation. Not bad.

    On the next biggie, Medicare in 1965, they go 12-7 (some no votes). Interestingly, just eyeballing the DW-Nominate data, this sorry group of racist psychopaths actually get more liberal from 1964-1968.


    *Nominate spits out civil rights legislation into another dimension, so this is measuring economic ideology.

    • joe from Lowell

      He’s not talking about sitting politicians, but about the voting public and candidates in subsequent races.

      • Manju

        I wasn’t really trying to contradict Scott on that point. I understand, there’s a lot of ways to interpret “Southern Conservatives”.

        But it is relevant that the coalition stayed together during LBJ’s Presidency. Indeed, it got stronger…at least in Senate. I suspect this Motley Crew was more supportive of the War on Poverty than they were of 2nd New Deal.

        They could’ve even stayed in the Party but opposed the liberal agenda. But they didn’t.

        • Murc

          If you’re making the arguments that a lot of virulently racist social conservatives in the south used to be in favor of very populist, left-wing economic policies, I don’t think a lot of people here are going to argue with you. That’s been accepted as the conventional historical view for a long time.

          The fly in the ointment, of course, is that those people only supported those policies as long as the benefits would flow only to whites. The historical record is very clear that there are multiple times when things like universal health care and expanded anti-poverty programs failed because southern Senators said “We can only support this if we can shut blacks out of it. If they can participate as well, we would rather have nothing than see them receive any sort of help.”

          • Manju

            The fly in the ointment, of course, is that those people only supported those policies as long as the benefits would flow only to whites.

            Yes, this is the Gentleman’s Agreement. White Supremacists would support Lefty Programs as long as Lefties allow for Jim Crow. But that agreement blew up in 1964.

            Interestingly, the centerpiece of LBJ’s War on Poverty took place right after the 64cra vote. To LBJ’s credit, there were strong enforcement mechanisms in his anti-poverty programs designed to circumvent the States.

            So there was little hope if any that these programs would benefit only whites, or benefit them unequally….as much of the New Deal was designed to do. Despite this, if you look at the comprehensive DW Nominate data, the Dixiecrats in the Senate became more reliably liberal. The two data-points that I extract, the Economic Opportunity Act followed by Medicare, substantiate the Nominate trend-line.

            This could be partially the result of Strom leaving. He was the most economically RWing of the Southerner Dem White Supremacists. Gore and Fulbright were the most Left. But he was only one, so the direction to which they shifted ideologically during LBJ’s Presidency is indeed counter-intuitive…given the “gentleman’s agreement” you reference.

    • “Going by the Senate’s Southern Dems, while LBJ was President, he only lost Strom Thurmond.”

      And since Nixon and LBJ were both President at the same time, you totally have a point there!

      • Manju

        And since Nixon and LBJ were both President at the same time, you totally have a point there!

        I don’t know what Prodigal is trying to say, but these stats would appear relevant.

        Below, list of every Democratic Senator who voted against any major CRA and who was in office when Nixon entered the WH in 1968. Followed by who was in their seat by 1976.

        John Sparkman [D] to…John Sparkman [D]

        J. Lister Hill [D] to…James Allen [D]

        John L. McClellan [D] to…John L. McClellan [D]

        J. William Fulbright [D] to…Dale Bumpers [D]

        Spessard Holland [D] to…Lawton Chiles [D]

        George Smathers [D] to…Richard Stone [D]

        Richard Russell, Jr. [D] to…Sam Nunn [D]

        Herman E. Talmadge [D] to…Herman E. Talmadge [D]

        Allen J. Ellender [D] to…Bennett Johnston, Jr. [D]

        Russell B. Long [D] to…Russell B. Long [D]

        John C. Stennis [D] to…John C. Stennis [D]

        James Eastland [D] to…James Eastland [D]

        B. Everett Jordan [D] to…Jesse Helms [R]

        Sam Ervin [D] to…Robert B. Morgan [D]

        Albert Gore, Sr. [D] to…Bill Brock [D]

        Fritz Hollings [D] to…Fritz Hollings [D]

        Harry F. Byrd, Jr. [D] to…Harry F. Byrd, Jr. [I]

        Robert Byrd {D] to..Robert Byrd [D]

        Of these 18 assholes, O became Republican during Nixon’s Presidency (or any time thereafter). 1 went Independent but caucused with Dems (H. Byrd….he refused to sign a loyalty oath to the Dem Party) and 2 had their seats replaced by Republicans.

        • Manju

          2 had their seats replaced by Republicans.

          Brock should be R, not D.

  • Pathman25

    Members of Congress owed LBJ a shitload of favors. He just called them in as he needed.

    • Murc

      It also helped that he knew where a lot of bodies were buried, and that the party mechanisms were much more machine-like in those days at every level.

      People forget just how fucking hard it was to run as a genuine insurgent outsider back in the day. You had had had HAD to have the support of at least your local or regional political establishment, who did literally decide which candidates would live and which ones would die in smoke-filled rooms. The modern primary was nonexistent.

      • Ethics laws and such were a lot looser then too, ifyaknowwhatumsayin

    • bobbyp

      And he didn’t owe them any?

      • Murc

        Not as many as you’d think.

        During the beginning of Johnson’s legislative career, he took especial care to be the one doing favors, not the one for whom favors were done. If he wanted you to do something, and you didn’t already owe him for past efforts, he was pretty damn reluctant to put himself in your debt, and he was eager to curry favor with those above him in the party hierarchy, which had the advantage that they could do things for him, and by the time he reached those heights himself, they were all retired, meaning his chits wouldn’t be called in.

  • Charrua

    As I understand it, Scott’s argument is that LBJ was a less powerful actor in its (very good) domestic policy, but a more powerful actor in its (disastrous) foreign policy and defense, right? It doesn’t make LBJ look especially good, from where I’m sitting, but maybe I’m misunderstanding the argument.

    • Murc

      Well, what makes LBJ look good on domestic policy is that he could have done so much worse but didn’t.

      He didn’t HAVE to push for Civil Rights. In fact an enormous part of his coalition would have been pleased if he hadn’t. He could have turned the Great Society into a watered-down set of programs that were designed to service potentially valuable constituencies and told everyone else to go to hell, and he’d have had the enthusiastic support of Congress on that.

      The Great Society and CRA 1964 and 1968 don’t happen without Congress, but they also don’t happen without LBJ’s support. Not just his acquiescence, but his support. The fact that he was less powerful than people think he was doesn’t change that.

      • Scott Lemieux

        This is right. Most presidents don’t have the opportunity that LBJ did, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t matter. Indeed, the context made the president’s agenda-setting choices more important than they usually would be.

    • James E Powell

      Presidents are almost always more powerful and more independent in foreign policy.

  • Hovde

    A little unfair on Roosevelt’s second term-the FLSA wasn’t chopped liver, even given the concessions made to the white supremacist Dixiecrats to get it passe.

    On the Court-
    It is true that Roberts did his switch before the announcement of the Court-packing plan. It is also true that Roberts had broken ranks with the 4 Horsemen in some earlier cases. However, what is the more plausible explanation of Roberts doing a total 180, which he did, in such a short time?

    a) he just realized that he had been wrong, or

    b) he expected some action against the Court, given that Roosevelt had just won a landslide after a campaign in which he made the Court a target, and during which there had been speculation in respectable venues like the NYT that a packing plan might be in the works.

    These are not, of course, mutually exclusive, but if I pick one I’m going with b).

    • James E Powell

      I posted it upthread, but you may find it more easily here. Justice Owen Roberts’s explanation for what looks like a change in his vote in West Coast Hotel v. Parrish.

      He does not explain why he wanted to overrule Adkins v. Children’s Hospital.

  • Dirk Gently

    Hey Scott commas how do they work? (Seriously, go back and edit that shit)

    BTW: passing meaningful legislation is like baking a cake. It’s only super delicious and perfect if you have all the right ingredients and context in place. Another big difference now vs. when LBJ was president: conservatives then would have merely withheld the butter or the sugar, whereas today’s conservatives are adding in garlic salt and arsenic.

    • Hogan

      Roy Blount Jr. once said that before the Carter nomination, putting together a national Democratic platform was a matter of “Well, we’ve baked this good nourishing cake here, but now we have to put some shit in it because otherwise the South won’t eat it.”

  • H-Bob

    I am not convinced about the effectiveness of Obama using the “Bully Pulpit” to get the public to push their Representatives and Senators to vote for his program. However, Obama certainly could have used “inside baseball” tactics (i.e., ladling out and withholding perks within his control, threatent to disclose personal information, etc.) to pressure the Democratic Blue Dog Senators into supporting his agenda.
    I recall a show about the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which recounted that Johnson told Humphrey (or another whip) that a recalcitrant Senator had a black mistress and then that Senator received a call in the Senate cloakroom from that mistress ! Perhaps keeping Lieberman in suspense about invitations to Israeli state dinners might have resulted in better cooperation and less spouting off to the press.

    • The problem being that a) it would be harder to keep those cats in the bag now and b) once they got out, the reaction would likely be as hostile to the President for “underhanded” tactics as anything else (c.f. “Cornhusker Kickback.”)

  • Walt

    At this point it’s clear the sole purpose of this blog is to get into the top 10 Google hits for “bully pulpit”. But when that happens, what then? Is that the signal for the aliens to invade?

    • Dirk Gently

      Personally, I would have liked to see more out of the blog that spawned the meme, “I am aware of all internet traditions.”

      • Walt

        More than an alien invasion? You’re hard to impress.

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