Photographer: Yoichi Okamoto. Source: LBJ Library & Museum via Bloomberg News
Photographer: Yoichi Okamoto. Source: LBJ Library & Museum via Bloomberg News

Damon Linker picks up an argument today that the the New York Times started on Sunday with a front-page article reappraising President Lyndon B. Johnson's legacy. When it comes to bad modern presidents, Linker writes, LBJ "comes in first, winning the contest of awfulness over George W. Bush by a hair.”

Unfortunately, that argument is less than persuasive, consisting mainly of an analysis of Johnson’s “War on Poverty” kickoff speech, which Linker finds hugely overambitious. As political sins go, this seems extremely minor league. Yes, making promises is an important part of representation, but presumably everyone knows that politicians (with, I suppose, the exception in recent times of George H.W. Bush) use inflated rhetoric.

And, no, I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that, as Linker states, “one of the main legacies of the ‘war on poverty’ was an increased cynicism about what the government can achieve,” just as I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that the the rollout debacle of the Affordable Care Act will have any effect on basic beliefs about whether government should attack problems. Vietnam, maybe. But mostly polling on the subject just flips back and forth depending on the president. Just as people give more conservative responses to pollsters during Barack Obama’s and Bill Clinton’s presidencies, voters turned more liberal (or at least gave pollsters more liberal answers) when George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan were in the White House. Actual presidential performance doesn’t seem to matter -- nor does the degree to which presidents over-promise.

Whatever the over-promises, and leaving aside the more difficult to assess War on Poverty, the Johnson era featured a bunch of domestic programs that were extremely successful on their own terms. Medicare, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act are the headlines, but there are plenty more, everything from the Clean Air Act to the National Endowment for the Humanities, as Johnson’s family and supporters argue in the Times article. If we’re to judge presidents on results, and credit presidents with everything that happens when they’re in the Oval Office, then all of that certainly counts positively for Johnson, and gives him more on the positive side of the ledger than other candidates for “worst modern president” such as George W. Bush or Jimmy Carter.1

However.

Note that I said “Johnson era,” not Johnson programs. Democrats and liberals (not identical groups back then) had huge majorities in the 89th Congress, with a lot of talented liberal legislators to boot. They also had a long backlog of liberal legislation that hadn’t been able to pass for years but that was ready to go as soon as the votes materialized. Not that Johnson was a passive spectator, of course, or that an inept president couldn’t have undermined things (see, once again, Carter). But also look at the legislation that liberal Congresses produced during Richard Nixon’s presidency despite his opposition. Nixon (a stronger candidate for Worst Modern President than Johnson) chose in many instances to accommodate congressional preferences, rather than run a pure veto strategy, but that doesn’t make those “his” bills. Just as much of the Johnson-era legislation would have passed no matter the president.

The point is that assessing presidents is actually pretty difficult. Indeed, there are good arguments that assessing them as “good” or “bad” is pointless, and ranking them is a fool’s game. I confess that I like the game. But I try to use it as a way to understanding what presidents actually do, what their real constraints are, what choices they really have and what the job of president entails.

And the very first part of that is separating what presidents do from what other players in the system do. That can be very difficult, precisely because we have a system of separated institutions sharing powers. It’s also important to remember that political context matters: If Obama had been elected with only 55 Democratic senators or with as many as 65, the outcomes in 2009 and 2010 would be very different, regardless of what his administration did.

Presidential speeches are a tempting area to focus on because, after all, these are presidential words coming out of the presidential mouth, which suggests that the president has full authority over them. None of the messiness about whether an agency really responds to the president. But such speeches also have only very limited importance, so it can’t be right to make them a central determinant in evaluating presidencies.

Clearly, Johnson is a hard president to evaluate: The good and the bad seem so extreme, even after adjusting for context and everything else. If pressed, I suppose I would say that his was a failed presidency despite having important accomplishments. One could say the same about Nixon. To me, that makes Johnson and Nixon a fascinating pair to study -- more interesting than the just-plain-failures such as George W. Bush and Carter. But ranking them? Good luck with that. Just please, if you try, stick to what these presidents actually did, as opposed to everything that happened when they were in office.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.


1 Don't like Medicare and the Clean Air Act? That's fine, but I'd make a very strong distinction between ranking presidents according to whether they adhere to a particular ideology or set of policy positions and evaluating them based on how expertly they went about doing their job. I'm interested in the latter. To be sure: It's often difficult to make that separation in practice. If you don't like Medicare or Reagan's tax and spending bills or the Affordable Care Act on ideological grounds, it isn't always easy to assess the presidenting skills involved in passing and implementing them (and as I say above, it's hard even if you don't have to worry about that). But that's what I'm talking about here.