Lyndon Johnson & The Power of the Presidency

In response to Robert Caro and Lyndon Johnson’s other disparagers, Johnson historian Robert Dallek cautions that “we need to see Johnson’s life not as a chance to indulge our sense of moral superiority, but as a way to gain an understanding of many subjects crucial to this country’s past, present, and future.”[1]  Indeed, Dallek is correct in his implication that to view the decisions and the major policy initiatives made by Johnson during his presidency solely as products of a single mind and a single determination is an analytical mistake.  Such an approach fails to take into account the fact that the presidency, as an institution, is extremely limited in its ability to exercise effective agency in order to resist, blunt, or alter historical conditions.  Thus one cannot logically blame a president for policy failures, nor can one logically credit him for policy successes that occur over the course of his administration.  Unlike Robert Caro and Johnson’s other disparagers, Dallek understands this basic truth.  He understands that the intention of the presidential biographer should be to situate a president’s actions within the context of the time period.  For instance, what were the political limitations with which Johnson had to contend?  What was the dominant ideology of the time both in regards to foreign and domestic policy?  What concessions did have make to Congress over the course of his presidency and most importantly why did he have to make these concessions?  Did Johnson fit squarely into the dominant ideology or did he attempt to buck the trend?  If he did, was he successful?  No president is ever able to achieve all that he sets out to achieve.  In the case of Johnson, how did this fact manifest itself with regards to the War on Poverty?  How was the realization of a liberal domestic policy agenda thwarted by the Vietnam War?  These are all questions which any presidential biography of Lyndon Johnson must answer.  A good presidential biography should, as best it can, leave it up to the reader to decide whether or not he or she sympathizes with the subject or hates the subject.  Unfortunately many presidential biographers get caught up in the ideology and the fever of their times.  As a result, they are either unaware or they forget how the presidency functions and how our political system functions to severely limit the agency of a president.  And so they end up setting out to write a biography intended to make undiscerning readers either love or hate the subject.  As Dallek explains so perfectly, both writing and reading biographies of Lyndon Johnson should not be occasions for us to indulge our sense of moral superiority.  The questions of love or hate, of sympathy or disdain, are ultimately irrelevant.  American presidents are vehicles through which one can learn about the American presidency and our political system as institutions.  Therefore, as a reader, the key point of inquiry should not be does one love or hate this president, but rather, does one love or hate the institution of the presidency and the American political system as it presented itself during this historical period.  With regards to Johnson’s War on Poverty, Dallek certainly lives up to his stated creed in Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973.

As President Lyndon Johnson and Walter Heller, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, were finishing up a conversation on pushing forward with an antipoverty program Johnson felt the need “to say something about all this talk that I’m a conservative who is likely to go back to the Eisenhower ways or give in to the economy bloc in Congress.  It’s not so, and I want you to tell your friends–Arthur Schlesinger, Galbraith and other liberals–that it is not so.  I’m no budget slasher.  I understand that expenditures have to keep rising to keep pace with the population and help the economy.  If you look at my record, you would know that I’m a Roosevelt New Dealer.  As a matter of fact, John F. Kennedy was a little too conservative to suit my taste.”[2]  As Dallek articulates quite well, Johnson would quickly find his expressed appetite for New Deal Style Liberalism and large public expenditures for helping poor folks thoroughly suppressed by a conservative Congress and the conservative political climate of the nation.  Both Elizabeth Wickenden, a social economist who had worked in President Franklin Roosevelt’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration and Horace Busby, one of Johnson’s White House aides, advised against the president signing on to anything which would create negative rumblings in Congress and among local officeholders and middle-class Americans.  Hardworking and supposedly self-made middle class taxpayers would resent bearing the costs of what would be perceived as new handouts to the lazy and undeserving poor while local politicians would take exception to a federal program which circumvented their input.  Here, Dallek lays out the limitations on Johnson’s agency quite nicely.  Anxieties about an overbearing and overactive federal government trampling on the desires of state and local politicians coupled with the time-honored American tradition of blaming those in poverty for their material conditions restricted Johnson’s dreams for eradicating poverty.  Unfortunately history does repeat itself.  Old and worn out tropes about the pathology of the poor and the sanctity of state’s rights do get recycled over and over again whenever they are needed to blight the potential for radical change in America.  This situation was no different, and for the astute student of American history, Dallek sets the context well.  He cites Johnson’s 1964 State of the Union message as an indicator of just how far Johnson intended to go with his War on Poverty.  Before the eyes and ears of the nation Johnson exclaimed, “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America….Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all to prevent it.”[3]  Dallek contrasts Johnson’s radical vision for eradicating poverty in America with the political realities with which he was eventually forced to succumb. Nonetheless, in the beginning, Johnson sincerely believed that by utilizing the skills of persuasion and cajolement which he had honed as Senate Majority Leader, he could bend a recalcitrant and reactionary Congress to his indomitable will.  He was wrong, and in this sense, Dallek makes the reader understand how a president’s noble vision and ambitious personality are no match for the obstructionist and conservative nature of the American political system.  Even though Johnson believed he could overcome the limitations of the presidency, he harbored no illusions about the immense difficulty of the task before him, “Everything on my desk was here when I first came to Congress.”[4]  That date happened to be twenty-six years ago.  The author spends the next few pages of the second chapter articulating Johnson’s sincerely held belief that his first-hand knowledge of congressional politicking would be enough to break a seemingly unbreakable Congress.  Indeed, on relatively minor issues such as the passage of a provision to finance the sale of surplus wheat to the Soviet Union, Johnson was able to get his way relatively easily.  This was not the case, however, with the War on Poverty, and its associated legislation.  From the outset, Johnson was forced to make compromises in accordance with the time period’s dominant ideology.  Within Congress and among the majority white population of the country, very little appetite existed for government action to help those languishing in poverty, especially poor inner city Blacks.  The president was forced to use the corporatist rhetoric of thrift, wise investments, and savings in order to sell the nation and its representatives on the necessity of an anti-poverty crusade, “Johnson’s several public references to fighting poverty emphasized that this was a ‘sound investment: $1,000 invested in salvaging an unemployable youth today can return $40,000 or more in his lifetime.’”[5]  Private discussion matched public pronouncements.  There was to be nothing included in the program which could be perceived as a downward redistribution of wealth.  In other words, the president could do anything and everything necessary to abolish poverty except what actually needed to be done to abolish poverty.  The reader’s expectations for Johnson’s eventual success in this lofty endeavor are reduced even further in this exchange between Sargent Shriver, the man responsible for leading Johnson’s noble crusade and Michael Harrington, author of The Other America and a leading expert on poverty.  Shriver asks Harrington to tell him exactly how to eradicate poverty and Harrington replies, “You’ve got to understand right away that you’ve been given nickels and dimes for this program.  You’ll have less than a billion dollars to work with.”[6]  Not only did the Johnson administration not have the correct strategy for abolishing poverty.  It failed to even allocate the necessary funds to do so even though a group of social welfare experts at the University of Michigan had predicted, in 1962, that the project would require a mere two billion per year, less than two percent of Gross National Product.[7]  Predictably, the final result proved to be as disappointing as the process.  On March 16, 1964 Johnson sent the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) to Congress.  It was a hodgepodge of several initiatives.  It introduced a loan program to provide businesses with incentives to hire the unemployed.  It requested funding for Volunteers in Service in America (VISTA) which would act as a domestic peace corps.  It diagrammed the framework of a community action program which would provide local communities with the tools necessary to overcome their own poverty.  It proposed the establishment of a Job Corps, work training, and work-study programs-all geared towards providing impoverished youth with the opportunity to finish their education and gain marketable skills.[8]  Johnson and his economic advisors did not even believe in the community action part of the program.  In fact, they were not certain that any of it would work.  Dallek provides the reader with the distinct impression that the president was blowing a lot of hot air with this anti-poverty program, not because he had failed to sincerely believe in the cause but rather because the ideological restrictions imposed on devising a solution had proved too much to bear.  Any debate on the bill’s substance would merely devolve into partisan bickering, and so Johnson’s goal was to arouse an environment of sympathy for doing something, never mind what, to alleviate the suffering of the poor.  In the end, significant compromises had to be made.  The provision to provide incentive loans to businesses to hire the unemployed as well as the program to help create family farms were abandoned.  The bill passed both the House and the Senate, but the author emphasizes that the entire enterprise was totally based on faith, faith that the EOA would work and faith that it represented just the beginning of a war that would last beyond Johnson’s presidency.  Dallek leaves the reader with the understanding that Johnson had very little control over the process and final outcome.  He cites one historian who argues that the Economic Opportunity Act might as well have been entitled “How Not to Fight Poverty.”[9]  Dallek writes, however, that neither Congress nor the majority of Americans were ideologically prepared to take meaningful action on this issue.  Certainly one important lesson which Dallek teaches the reader in his accounting of Johnson’s War on Poverty is that when the American population is ill-informed and ill-educated on any particular issue, democracy does not function well and social justice is rarely achieved.  But most importantly, it is not within a president’s power to change such a dismal reality.




















Brauer, Carl M. “Kennedy, Johnson, and the War on Poverty.” The Journal of American History 69, no. 1 (1982): 98-119. Accessed November 26, 2015. JSTOR.

Dallek, Robert. Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.


[1] Carl M. Brauer, “Kennedy, Johnson, and the War on Poverty.” The Journal of American History 69, no. 1 (1982): 98-119. Accessed November 26, 2015. JSTOR.

[2] Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 60-61



[3] Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 62

[4] Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 63

[5] Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 74

[6] Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 78

[7] Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 62

[8] Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 79

[9] Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 111


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