On Tuesday, during a discussion about the significance of presidential leadership in achieving health care reform, historian Robert Dallek underscored the role of the presidency in shaping the political debate and helping voters get behind solutions to big problems.
Dallek suggested that since the nation is now “ready to think in larger terms” about health care reform, President-elect Barack Obama should “not speak to special interests, but to the national well being” — a technique mastered by President Lyndon Johnson during the struggle for civil rights:
What [Johnson] needed to do was to explain to them that segregation in the South not only segregated the races in the South, but it segregated the South from the rest of the nation…Johnson in a sense sold civil rights to the country as a program of national well being. And that’s what I think needs to be done now with national health care.
As civil rights served the national well being, comprehensive health care reform will, among other things, improve the nation’s current economic outlook. Growing health care costs are “straining families, businesses, and government budgets” and ultimately, Congress cannot help American families or address the economic woes “in a lasting, meaningful way without health care reform” that includes an upfront investment in coverage and health care infrastructure.
It’s up to the President to seize on the history of past reforms and help the public get behind solutions to big problems.
What I think the president needs to do. It’s absolutely fundamental. Is not speak to special interests, but to the national well being. What needs to be done, that will serve the national well being. Because this is a moment when the country, I think is ready to think in larger terms, in broader ways. I will just give you one example. The civil rights issue, Lyndon Johnson. Johnson understood that if he went to the country and emphasized repeatedly the idea that African Americans had been an abused minority, which certainly they were. That they were entitled to a kind justice under the constitution that it would not be enough to sell the country on civil rights.
What he needed to do was to explain to them that segregation in the South not only segregated the races in the south, but it segregated the south from the rest of the nation. See, at the time, people thought of the South as sort of the crazy aunt you kept in the attic. And the way to do this was to desegregate the South and then you would integrate the south into the rest of the nation. This would be an act of national well being because instead of the tension, instead of that divide, instead of the bloodshed we saw going on in the south. The south would become an integral part of the American national experience. It’s so striking that Johnson was exactly right.
He knew he was going to pay a price…but we he also understood was that this was going to open the door to the possibility that Southerners could run for president. They couldn’t run for president until that point. The shadow of the Civil war was so influential in deciding national politics…and Johnson in a sense sold civil rights to the country as a program of national well being. And that’s what I think needs to be done now with national health care. That it’s not something that will serve this interest or that interest, but it’s vital to the well being of the nation.