What Joe Biden and LBJ Have in Common


President Joe Biden’s closing message before the midterms emphasized the stakes for girls following the demise of Roe v. Wade: “If you happen to give me two more senators in the USA Senate, I promise you, I promise you, we’re going to codify Roe and once more make Roe the law of the land.” Nearly 60 years ago, one other president promised to codify rights if activists could secure the required votes.

When Biden took office days after insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol, many with Confederate flags, he drew comparisons to Abraham Lincoln. After passing significant economic and social spending packages, Biden welcomed references to Franklin D. Roosevelt. As inflation and gas prices rose, observers noted the similarities to Jimmy Carter.

Perhaps probably the most unappreciated presidential parallel is between Biden and Lyndon Johnson. Each became unexpected civil rights presidents and promised sweeping laws if voters and activists delivered crucial support.

When he was sworn in aboard the presidential aircraft in Dallas on November 22, 1963, Johnson was not considered a civil rights champion. A southerner, LBJ had gained power within the Senate by cozying as much as the region’s segregationists, who dominated committee chairmanships and backed his failed bid for the 1960 presidential nomination. Privately, he used racial epithets uttered in his deep Texas drawl. But LBJ also saw poverty and discrimination firsthand.

Initially, that fight was for Mexican American students in a segregated school in Cotulla, Texas, where LBJ taught within the Twenties and fought for higher supplies. As a senator within the Fifties, Johnson faced a balancing act on civil rights.

Because the anti–Jim Crow movement gained traction, LBJ recognized that his presidential ambitions were inconceivable without support from Black voters and northern liberals, including powerful unions. The party wouldn’t nominate a segregationist in 1960, so Johnson, then the Senate majority leader, used his legendary powers of persuasion to secure the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Modest in scope, it was nevertheless the first civil rights laws since Reconstruction. Johnson’s support for the bill made him a pretty candidate to be John F. Kennedy’s running mate.

Despite the shift in popular opinion, Kennedy couldn’t pass a civil rights bill banning discrimination in employment and accommodations. Segregationist senators retained enough power to implement a filibuster of civil rights laws. After he took office in 1963, LBJ invited the leaders of the five most distinguished civil rights organizations over for one-on-one meetings: Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Whitney Young of the National Urban League, Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality, and A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Automotive Porters.

Johnson convinced these champions of freedom that he was committed to civil rights laws. “I’ll handle the bill itself,” he told them, adding that everybody “may have his task.” LBJ gave MLK a listing of the congressmen who had not yet signed a critical petition, which might release the laws from a committee hold. He instructed MLK to work on the Republican names on the list.

“If we will find the votes, we are going to win. If we don’t find the votes, we are going to lose,” LBJ told Wilkins. Johnson would, in fact, go on to sign not only the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, but in addition the expansion of social programs, including Medicaid, Medicare, and Head Start.

Six a long time later, and President Biden is one other unexpected activist. A graduate of parochial schools, the proud Irish Catholic has been honest about his personal opposition to abortion. Early in his profession, he voted against a 1977 compromise that authorized Medicaid funding for abortions for victims of rape and incest along with concerns for the lifetime of the mother. He later moderated that position but all the time supported the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits using Medicaid funds for abortion except when the girl’s life is endangered. But as with Johnson, his national ambitions made him an unlikely progressive on abortion.

In 1987, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden oversaw the confirmation hearings of President Ronald Reagan’s controversial Supreme Court nominee, Robert Bork. While Reagan’s earlier nominees, Sandra Day O’Connor (the primary woman nominated to the Court) and Antonin Scalia (the primary Italian American named to the Court), had been easily confirmed, Democrats were in no mood to rubber-stamp a conservative transformation of the nation’s highest court.

Bork’s nomination placed Biden front and center on the national stage and offered him a platform to champion privacy rights, including abortion. Bork had repeatedly written that any constitutional right to privacy was a myth, and he was particularly scornful of Roe. Under Biden’s leadership, Bork’s nomination went all the way down to defeat.

As Biden readied his 2008 bid for the presidency, he wrote in his pre-campaign book that he wasn’t comfortable imposing his views on others and supported the precise of each woman to make that alternative for herself with the guidance of her doctor. When he sought the presidency in 2020, 32 years after his initial bid, Biden had even adopted the language of up to date reproductive activists. There was no “keep it secure, legal, and rare” language, which Bill Clinton had employed. There was no more allegiance to the Hyde Amendment and restricting federal funds for abortion.

When the Supreme Court overruled Roe this 12 months, Biden, now president, became much more of an activist, for the primary time openly considering the abolition of the filibuster and the expansion of the Supreme Court, once verboten for an institutionalist reminiscent of himself. Like LBJ, Biden had not only survived but thrived for a long time in Washington, D.C., due to a honed sense for shifting political winds. While his personal position on abortion hasn’t modified, his political stances reflect voter preferences, identical to LBJ.

The Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling didn’t just overturn the federal right to abortion. It also invalidated the constitutional right to privacy. The proper to privacy is the essential underpinning for the cases that established the right to interracial marriage, the right to same-sex marriage, the right to privacy within the bedroom, and the right to contraception.

Just like the civil rights movement, privacy rights were the product of decades-long fights by dedicated activists. Women and health care professionals campaigned for secure and legal medical look after women, including contraception and abortion access. LGBTQ couples pushed for the precise to marry the person they loved and demanded that the state recognize those unions.

Within the Fifties, activists lobbied for the precise to vote, the precise to be judged by a jury of peers, and the precise to access public accommodations. Different rights are at stake today, but these rights are not any less essential to a free human experience.

Justice Clarence Thomas has encouraged the Court to overturn these rights. But they could possibly be codified by Congress with enough votes. As Biden said, “If you happen to care about the precise to decide on, then you definitely gotta vote.” LBJ got the votes he needed to pass landmark laws that remains to be the gold standard for civil rights reform. The election results on Tuesday will determine whether Biden can achieve similar reforms or whether his civil rights ambitions will die in Congress.

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