Obama Praises LBJ’s Use of Power, ‘Sympathy for the Underdog’

President Barack Obama heralded the resolve of former President Lyndon B. Johnson in pushing through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and brought up one of Johnson’s more famous lines to his presidential advisers.

President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), tour the great hall of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library with library director Mark Updegrove, April 10, 2014 in Austin, Texas. (AFP/Getty Images/Brendan Smialowski)

“Most of his staff counseled him against it,” Obama said Thursday at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, referring to Johnson’s desire to push the civil rights bill. “They said it was hopeless, that it would anger powerful Southern Democrats, that it risked derailing the rest of his domestic agenda.”

Obama then recited Johnson’s notable rebuttal to cautious staffers: “’What the hell’s the presidency for?’ What the hell’s the presidency for if not to fight for causes you believe in?”

Though the event, the Civil Rights Summit, was to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act, Obama went on to talk about other accomplishments from Johnson such as the Great Society. In a wink at Obama’s own signature accomplishment in the signing the unpopular Affordable Care Act, the president noted that Medicare was denounced as socialized medicine.

“He was charming when he needed to be, ruthless when required. He could wear you down with logic and he could horse trade,” Obama said. “President Johnson liked power. He liked the feeling of it, the wielding of it. But that hunger was harnessed and redeemed by a deeper understanding of the human condition. By a sympathy for the underdog.”

Then he again referenced Johnson’s famous line.

“He understood what it meant to be on the outside and he believed that their plight was his plight too, that his freedom ultimately was wrapped up in theirs and that making their lives better was what the hell the presidency was for,” Obama said.

Obama said that Johnson tackled civil rights early into his “sudden presidency,” an office the Texan ascended to after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Obama reflected that some in that era believed “racism is so embedded in our DNA that there’s no use trying politics; the game is rigged.”

But he said Johnson commitment to the Bill of Rights opened doors to Americans.

“They swung open for you and they swung open for me,” Obama said. “Millions in my generation were in a position to take the baton that he handed to us.”

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