President Barack Obama connected President Lyndon Johnson’s legislative accomplishments to his own life and presidency during an address marking the 50th anniversary of The Civil Rights Act. Speaking at Johnson’s presidential library on Thursday, Obama reflected on how the 37th president overcame high political obstacles to pass “a health care law that opponents described as socialized medicine” — Medicare and Medicaid — and enacted landmark civil rights legislation that forever altered the landscape of the nation.
Noting that both spectrums of today’s political debate tend to downplay Johnson’s accomplishments, Obama offered a robust defense of his legacy, arguing that Johnson’s expansive view of the role of government has ensured equality of opportunity for him and all Americans.
“I reject such cynicism because I have lived out the promise of LBJ efforts,” he said, “because Michelle has lived out the legacy of those efforts, because my daughters have lived out the legacy of those efforts and I and millions of those in my position had a position to take the baton that he handed to us “:
[B]ecause of the civil rights movement, because of the laws President Johnson signed, new doors of opportunity swung open for everybody. Not all at once, but they swung open. Not just blacks and whites but also women and Latinos and Asians and Native Americans and gay Americans and Americans with a disability. They swung open for you and they swung open for me. That’s why I’m standing here today — because of those efforts, because of that legacy. And that means we have a debt to pay.
Democrats have embraced Johnson’s approach to social policy during the Obama presidency and ahead of the 2014 midterm elections, calling on Congress to advance legislation like the Paycheck Fairness Act, increase the minimum wage, and maintain the expansion of health insurance for all Americans.
In the 50 years since Johnson first declared that the nation could, “for the first time in our history,” conquer and win a war on poverty, conservative leaders systematically undermined the programs that shaped Johnson’s War on Poverty, frequently deploying racist and sexist arguments to take away public assistance from the poorest Americans. Their rhetoric didn’t directly undo these social programs, but it chipped away at their foundation and altered Americans’ perceptions about the proper role of government and can still be heard in the debates in Washington today.