Barack Obama, Lyndon Johnson and presidential comparisons

Barack Obama, Lyndon Johnson and presidential comparisons

We measure our presidents against not only our hopes for the present, which are sometimes unreasonable, but also our understanding of the past, which can be just as flawed.

Has a misreading of history informed a misappraisal of Barack Obama?

That’s a question raised, not explicitly but implicitly, by a new book by the Princeton historian Julian Zelizer, “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” to be published on Thursday.

Its setting is the 1960s, as the title, a phrase uttered by Martin Luther King Jr., suggests. Its focus is Lyndon Johnson. And one of its conclusions is that despite Johnson’s legend as a peerless legislative tactician, he was largely a hostage of Congress and of forces beyond the presidency.

Zelizer reminds us that many of Johnson’s signature victories came during a two-year period when Democrats had two-thirds majorities in both the Senate, where they held 68 seats, and the House, where they held 295.

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