AUSTIN — President Obama said Thursday that Americans live in a world forged largely by predecessor Lyndon Johnson – not just in terms of civil rights, but the whole ongoing argument about government itself.
"Today we remain locked in this same great debate about equality and opportunity, and the role of government in ensuring each," Obama said during a summit on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Keynoting the conference held at the Johnson presidential library, Obama praised LBJ for knowing how to get things done, including civil rights laws that forged opportunities for millions and made possible the nation's first African-American president.
Obama called Johnson "a master of politics and the legislative process" who grasped "the power of government to bring about change."
Said the president: "Passing laws was what LBJ knew how to do."
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as the Voting Rights Act that Johnson signed a year later, swung open doors of opportunity for Americans who had been locked out for decades, Obama said.
"They swung open for you, and they swung open for me," Obama told a friendly crowd. "And that's why I'm standing here today."
In praising Johnson's legislative skills, Obama said, "He was charming when he needed to be, ruthless when required. He could wear you down with logic and argument. He could horse-trade, and he could flatter."
Johnson, once shunned even by Democrats because he escalated American involvement in the Vietnam War, is having a historical comeback as supporters focus on his domestic record, particularly the civil rights laws.
In discussing that record, Obama referred to his own administration by noting that attacks on another LBJ program, Medicare, anticipated those made on the health care plan Obama signed into law in 2010. Obama also praised Johnson-signed laws on immigration and housing.
Johnson "understood that government had a role to play in broadening prosperity to all those who would strive for it," Obama said.
Many of Obama's Republican critics, like those of LBJ's day, say he has an over-reliance on government regulations, leading to slow job creation. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said this week that "the Obama economy has had a devastating impact on the people we represent."
The civil rights laws, however, have drawn bipartisan praise as pivotal anniversaries approach.
In a letter to organizers of the LBJ summit, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, wrote that "passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is rightly regarded as one of the House's finest hours."
That act outlawed segregation in public accommodations such as hotels and restaurants. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 removed barriers to voting by African Americans.
In praising Johnson's approach to government, Obama said that all presidents know that legislation has limits, and creating it can be a "slow" and "frustrating" process.
Presidents are reminded daily that "you are but a relay swimmer in the currents of history," Obama said, though he added that the job creates unique opportunities to "bend those currents."
Defending activist government, Obama disputed those on the right who say that "government has become the true source of all that ails us," and those on the left who say "that racism is so embedded in our DNA that there is no use trying politics — the game is rigged."
Instead, the president said that he, first lady Michelle and their children "have lived out" Johnson's vision.
Obama was one of four presidents to attend the three-day civil rights summit in Austin. Democratic predecessors Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton spoke on previous days, and Republican ex-president George W. Bush gave a speech Thursday night about education as a civil right.
"America is a more just and generous country because LBJ set his mind and will to the cause of civil rights," Bush said.
The summit featured veterans of both the Johnson administration and the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s.
Obama was Introduced by Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., an associate of Martin Luther King Jr. who noted that when Obama was born in 1961, it was illegal for blacks and whites to ride in the same cab or stay in the same hotel. Civil rights workers could be arrested or even killed, and Lewis himself was beaten by police.
The president began and capped his speech with the story of how an LBJ aide advised him not to pursue civil rights, lest his presidency be wrecked by "lost causes."
To which Johnson replied, "Well, what the hell's the presidency for?"