Lyndon Johnson is frequently invoked by conservatives as if he were the poster boy for ineffective liberal leadership, wedged right up there between Jimmy Carter and Michael Dukakis. His “Great Society,” a social welfare project designed to bring government subsidized services to poor inner cities, still draws their ire. Similarly, President Obama is often criticized by conservatives as overextending the reach of the federal government and relying on government programs to help fix social ills.
But the comparisons between Obama and Johnson don’t end there. On Wednesday, when Obama expressed his support for legalizing gay marriage, history eerily repeated itself, as it often does. Though in office more than 40 years apart, both leaders’ backing for controversial change – Obama for legitimizing gay marriage and Johnson for expanding civil rights – a well as the political situations they faced, bore a striking resemblance.
That history will remember Obama mostly for supporting gay marriage appears unlikely – the issue does not affect as much of the country as did the oppression experienced by African Americans in the South. Still, last week, in an indication of a seismic shift taking place in mainstream political rhetoric, Obama became the first sitting president to express the opinion that gays should be allowed to marry; likewise, though not the first president to support civil rights, no POTUS had yet expressed as much support for expanding civil rights as did LBJ. In his terms in office, he signed into law the 1965 Voting Rights Act, as well as the 1964 and 1968 Civil Rights Acts.
Whether Obama’s position on gay marriage actually “evolved” or not is open for debate. After all, as an Illinois state senator, he lived in and represented voters in Hyde Park, one of the most progressive neighborhoods in Chicago. It is claimed that in 1996 he outright expressed his support for gay marriage to a Chicago LGBT paper. But like Lyndon Johnson, Obama has navigated a quickly changing and tricky political landscape to his advantage. Lyndon Johnson used the nation’s grieving over Kennedy’s assassination to help garner support for civil rights. Obama, meanwhile, has perhaps sensed a mass shift in public opinion on gay marriage – polls show that for the first time ever, in 2011, more Americans accepted gay marriage than those who did not.
It is not yet clear whether Obama’s new position will influence Congress and lead to new legislation, as LBJ’s stance on civil rights did. But it might.
In supporting the legalization of gay marriage, Obama appeared to perhaps suggest that gay marriage is a federally relevant issue. As of the moment, there are seven states in which gay marriage is allowed and 30 in which it is constitutionally banned. Similarly, in the 1960s, civil rights were decided on by individual states. In 1961, Obama's parents legally married in Hawaii, but would not have been able to do so in Virginia. In 1967, Massachusetts elected its first black senator, Edward Brooke, but housing discrimination based on race had not yet been banned.
There is one major difference between LBJ's case and Obama's, however: the electoral effect of their policies. As a result of Johnson's support for desegregation, the Democratic Party would frequently lose the South to socially conservative Republicans. It remains to be seen whether or not Obama’s support for legalizing gay marriage will hurt his chances for re-election. Some new polls suggest that it might. But even if Obama loses key swing states, thus losing the election, the Democrats will not proceed to lose an entire region of the U.S. vote for a generation.