Skip Navigation

Califano, Portman Urge President-Elect Obama to Draw on Lessons from LBJ, Take Risks, Be Courageous in Tackling Domestic Policy Challenges

Highlights of LBJ Symposium Keynote Speeches Available on the LBJ School Youtube Channel at http://www.youtube.com/TheLBJSchool

AUSTIN, Texas-- Jan. 7, 2009-- With less than 2 weeks until President-Elect Barack Obama takes office, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs posted its first Youtube videos of 2009 featuring highlights of keynote speeches by Joseph A. Califano, Jr. and Robert Portman delivered at the Lyndon B. Johnson Centennial Symposium: “Policy Challenges for the New President and the LBJ Legacy,” held December 4 and 5, 2008. Both keynote addresses in their entirety are available at the LBJ School web site at http://www.utexas.edu/lbj/centennialsymposium.

In his remarks, Joseph A. Califano, Jr., former Special Assistant and Senior Domestic Policy Advisor to President Johnson, outlines five lessons he feels President-Elect Barack Obama must learn from the Johnson Administration. Robert J. Portman, former U.S. Representative (R-OH), former Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and U.S. Trade Representative under the George W. Bush administration, presents a list of the domestic policy challenges President-Elect Obama will face and how best to tackle them—providing both a personal perspective and a look back at the Johnson era for guidance. Each speech begins with an introduction by LBJ School Dean James B. Steinberg, President-Elect Obama’s nominee for Deputy Secretary of State.

In his keynote address “The Johnson Legacy: Lessons for the New President,” Califano urged President-Elect Obama to stick to the progressive path and bolster the social policies started in the Johnson administration.

“Live your presidency by LBJ’s signature admonition: ‘Do it now. Not next week. Not tomorrow. Now,’” said Califano. “However grand your margin of victory, however adoring the crowds and the media, your time is limited before the opposition takes your measure.”

Califano’s five lessons included moving boldly and quickly to establish social programs, to take the progressive path, to use political power to harness the private sector, and to learn lessons from the Vietnam War in relation to the current situation in Iraq.

“History makes clear that the President who held fast to the progressive path—notably Roosevelt and Johnson—had the greatest long-term impact on American society,” said Califano. “There are few lasting accomplishments in the presidencies of those who snuggled in the security of the center.”

Throughout his keynote address, Califano accented the importance of following in Johnson’s footsteps by avoiding the center while fulfilling the promise of the Great Society. However, Califano also emphasized the importance of bipartisan support.

“LBJ offers a defining lesson in the importance of mustering bipartisan support,” Califano said. “These Great Society proposals were cutting edge, that were controversial progressive initiatives, and LBJ courted Republican members of Congress to support them…It was not only that he needed Republican votes to pass bills like civil rights, health, education and consumer laws; he saw bipartisanship support as an essential foundation on which to build a lasting commitment among the American people.”

Califano compared President-Elect Obama to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson and feels that President-Elect Obama is poised to inherit the progressive legacies of these two former presidents.

“There is an historical cadence to the progressive tradition, and it is fitting and fair that we regard Barack Obama as charged with composing the third volume in the progressive trilogy begun by FDR and LBJ,” said Califano. “Like Roosevelt, who abandoned the idea of including health care coverage in his social security legislation and lost many legislative battles after his remarkable first 100 days, Lyndon Johnson did not get all he wanted. And, just like Roosevelt left an unfinished agenda for LBJ, so LBJ has left an unfinished agenda for Barack Obama.”

Califano went on to compare Johnson in Vietnam to President-Elect Obama and the current situation in Iraq.

“It’s time to take off the Vietnam blinders and let our eyes look at and learn from the domestic dimension of this presidency,” said Califano. “Let everyone think what they will of Vietnam. And there is a lesson for Obama in the tragedy of Vietnam: not only to get out of Iraq, but to think hard and long before increasing troop levels in Afghanistan and incidentally making other entangling military commitments.”

Califano concluded his keynote address with a call to remember the progressive legacy of Johnson.

“And that legacy endures as a history lesson that can help Barack Obama write the third volume in a trilogy of progressive government to complement the earlier volumes crafted by Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.”

Of the challenges facing President-Elect Obama that Robert J. Portman outlined in his keynote address, “Challenges Facing the New President,” he heavily emphasized the economy and the importance of understanding the long-term implications of the stimulus packages and entitlement spending.

“I understand the need to act, but I do have deep concerns about both the spending and tax side,” said Portman. “I think any jump start on the spending side needs to be immediate and temporary spending.”

Portman urged President-Elect Obama to reform entitlement programs before dedicating any more of the federal budget and, consequentially, being unable to invest in areas like education, renewable energy and defense.

“Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are incredibly important programs, and some would argue among the most important things government has ever done,” said Portman. “It’s not that these programs aren’t important; it’s that we are creating IOUs for future generations.”

Portman called for a bipartisan commission dedicated to curtailing what he views as excessive entitlement spending.

“At a minimum, let’s set up some sort of process to look at a bipartisan way, hopefully away from the politics of it, at where to go with these programs, which is why I think a commission makes sense,” said Portman.

Portman also feels that President-Elect Obama must find a bipartisan way to deal with energy, and described renewable energy and conservation as areas where there has been common ground. However, he pointed to the supply side of energy as an area where a consensus must be created.

“How much emphasis are we going to put on clean coal?” said Portman. “We have two to three hundred years in the ground. It’s something we really should try, but it’s so expensive and the technology really isn’t there yet. It’s an area where we need to form a consensus and move forward.”

Portman also called for earmark reform, agency innovation and reform of bureaucracy.

“We should end earmarks,” said Portman. “It results in a culture in Congress that is negative.”

Portman went on to describe how the challenges he listed in his keynote address relate to President Johnson and his legacy.

“Lyndon Johnson faced a lot of challenges when he entered office,” said Portman. “They were different than the challenges we face today. It was about, really, the unraveling of the social contract, not the financial system.”

Portman pointed out specific lessons that President-Elect Obama could learn from the legacy of President Johnson.

“First is how Lyndon Johnson dealt with the issue of race,” said Portman. “…As president, he showed both legislative skill and great political courage in negotiating and passing the Civil Rights Act of ’64, the Voting Rights Act of ’65, moving our country one step closer to racial equality.”

Portman emphasized that President Johnson was willing to take on politically risky tasks, such as tackling the issue of race, a trait that he hopes President-Elect Obama will demonstrate.

“[Johnson] had to go up against his strongest allies in the Senate and people who had supported him all through his leadership career in the Senate,” said Portman. “But more importantly, he had to go up against his mentors.”

The second lesson of President Johnson’s legacy that Portman called on President-Elect Obama to absorb is that of the importance of fiscal responsibility. Portman points to Medicare as an important program, but Portman believes the spending for it has gotten out of control.

“It was sold as a self-sustaining program that could help our most needy citizens,” said Portman. “Today it’s an expanded program on autopilot…President-Elect Obama should look very carefully at the fiscal implications of any new public policy.”

Portman finished his address with what he thinks is the most important legacy of President Johnson: how he governed.

“He demonstrated, as much as any American, that through commitment, hard work, and having your heart in the right place, you can make an incredible difference in the lives of people,” said Portman.

For full versions of these keynote addresses, as well as videos of paper presentations and Symposium information, visit the LBJ School web site at http://www.utexas.edu/lbj/centennialsymposium.