A half-century after the passage of sweeping civil rights legislation, President Barack Obama declared that he had “lived out the promise” envisioned by Lyndon B. Johnson, the president who championed the push for greater racial equality.
Marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, which Johnson signed into law, Obama lauded his Democratic predecessor’s ability to grasp like few others the power of government to bring about change and swing open the doors of opportunity for millions of Americans.
“They swung open for you and they swung open for me,” he said. “That’s why I’m standing here today.
Obama spoke at the end of a three-day summit commemorating the landmark law that ended racial discrimination in public places. The anniversary has spurred a renaissance of sorts for Johnson’s domestic agenda, which included the creation of Medicare, Medicaid and the Voting Rights Act. And against the backdrop of Obama’s own troubled relationship with Congress, there have also been fresh bouts of nostalgia for Johnson’s mastery of congressional deal-making.
“No one knew politics and no one loved legislating more than President Johnson,” Obama said. “He was charming when he needed to be, ruthless when required.”
The president also offered rare personal insights into his views on the office he has held for more than five years, casting it as a humbling perch with powerful possibilities.
“Those of us who’ve had the singular privilege to hold the office of the presidency know well that progress in this country can be hard and it can be slow, frustrating. And sometimes you’re stymied,” he said.
“You’re reminded daily that in this great democracy, you are but a relay swimmer in the currents of history, bound by decisions of those who came before, reliant on the efforts of those who will follow to fully vindicate your vision,” he continued. “But the presidency also affords a unique opportunity to bend those currents by shaping our laws and by shaping our debates, by working within the confines of the world as it is, but also by reimagining the world as it should be.”
As the nation’s first black president, Obama faced criticism from some African-Americans in his first term for doing too little to help minorities. He’s used his second term to focus more acutely on issues of inequality and economic opportunity, an effort that dovetailed with the commemoration of the Civil Rights Act.
Using Johnson’s domestic successes as a model, Obama made the case that the government can still play a role in enacting social programs that can address inequalities.
“If some of this sounds familiar, it’s because today we remain locked in the same great debate about equality and opportunity and the role of government,” Obama said, noting that there were those who dismissed LBJ’s “Great Society” as a failed experiment that encroached on liberty.