Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book “Abraham Joshua Heschel: A life of Radical Amazement.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Was there anything else President Joe Biden could have done?
After months of wrangling, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin took to Fox News on Sunday to announce he would not vote for the Build Back Better legislation, dealing a huge body blow to the Biden administration.
As soon as Manchin made his announcement, there was instant Monday-morning quarterbacking about how the president should have been tougher on Manchin.
And if there was a model for Biden to get Manchin on board, it would be President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose legislative record was built on his famous “Johnson Treatment,” his ability to seduce, threaten, and persuade members of Congress to vote the way he wanted. It’s clear Biden needs to leverage his power and use all the tools at his disposal to achieve his agenda, but it’s also imperative to grasp the limits of what a president can do and look to LBJ’s presidency to draw a feasible roadmap forward for Biden and the Democrats.
The quintessential image of LBJ is that of “The Treatment.” Johnson, who was about 6’4”, would invade the physical space of lawmakers and stand over them, with his face just inches away from theirs, until they gave him the answer he sought. “The Treatment” was also captured in audio recordings of White House telephone conversations, with Johnson doing everything from trying to cajole politicians into voting his way to berating and threatening those who dared to defy him.
As the great historian Robert Caro recounted, Johnson’s ability to get what he wanted was “legislative genius.” Johnson dangled favors to get lawmakers on board, and often cobbled together coalitions by promising federal funds for pet projects that would help their standing at home. When someone wasn’t being agreeable, Johnson could turn on them, isolating them from the Oval Office and refusing to support initiatives these lawmakers could show their constituents to win reelection.
Johnson also worked with grassroots organizations to pressure obstinate members of Congress. He relied on the Civil Rights Movement, for instance, to pressure his opponents at the local level. The union movement, with its mass membership, was another crucial tool to lobby for programs like civil rights and health care.
But Johnson was not a superhero. More than anyone, he understood Congress was an awesome force. If a president didn’t have the votes to spare, there was sometimes nothing he could do to change things. Before 1965, Johnson was extraordinarily frustrated he was unable to convince Congress to pass a bill that would provide health care to the elderly—Medicare.
Even after Johnson took over as president in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s tragic death, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Wilbur Mills, a conservative Democrat from Arkansas, refused to budge. He argued Medicare would be too expensive and threaten the viability of the Social Security system. Johnson tried everything he could, but nothing could convince Mills.
This changed after November 1964 – not because of Johnson but because of the new landscape created by the landslide election. Democrats had a 295-seat majority in the House and 68 seats in the Senate. Many of the new Democrats had run on campaigns promising to pass Medicare and Johnson’s decisive defeat of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater—who staunchly opposed Medicare—was seen as a clear mandate that voters wanted the bill.
It was because of the election, not Johnson’s cajoling, that Mills finally changed his stance and accepted the inevitability of Medicare. Rather than standing in the way of history, he worked with the administration to push for legislation that was bigger and bolder than anything the president had imagined. The final bill, with Mills playing the architect rather than obstructionist, included hospital care, coverage for doctor’s visits, and a health care program for the poor called Medicaid.
Today, Biden must use all the tools Johnson deployed if he wants a shot at passing some version of the Build Back Better bill next year. The largest coal mining union in the country has called for Manchin to reverse his position and Biden should work with them to build pressure against the Senator in his own state by making it clear just how much the Build Back Better bill would benefit West Virginians. Biden should also leverage his position and let Manchin know if he remains a no, the doors to the Oval Office won’t be open to him for much longer.
The President can also bite the bullet and accept a much smaller legislative package in January – one that doesn’t include many of the climate change provisions Manchin opposes, to see if it makes a difference. The risk, of course, is that Biden gives up too much and ends up with nothing if other, more progressive Democrats refuse to accept this deal.
Perhaps the most effective strategy would be to appeal to Manchin’s own ego. Johnson loved to do this to lawmakers, realizing there was no better means of persuasion than to let them wield their power and lap up the credit and adulation. With Manchin, Biden can remind the Senator a shift from decisive opposition to key architect—the same role Mills had played with Medicare or Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen with the Civil Rights Act of 1964—would ensure his place in the history books.
In the end, however, there are limits to what the President can achieve. If Manchin refuses to respond to any of these entreaties, there isn’t much Biden can do. The legislation might very well be dead – unless Democrats can grow their majority in 2022 or 2024 and render Manchin’s vote inconsequential. But regardless of how it all unfolds, Manchin’s months-long opposition to the Build Back Better bill should be a reminder to Democrats the future of this presidency hinges on the composition of Congress. Given that partisanship is much stronger today than in 1964, Democrats now need to be strategic about growing their collective power if it comes down to outflanking Manchin, rather than changing him.