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Edward L. Glaeser

Does US need another imperial president like Lyndon Johnson?

Were cozy ties between Texas legislators and Halliburton’s corporate predecessor Brown and Root responsible for the passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act? The new fourth volume of Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson series lays out how the 36th president used his influence, often in elaborate ways, to get Congress to pass major legislation. It also raises an obvious question: Do we need a similarly imperial president to solve today’s intractable problems?

America faces not just a fiscal morass, but also an education deficit that threatens our future well-being. In these times, could we use another LBJ?

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The Kennedy assassination radically increased the power of the presidency. Johnson had no more legal authority than his predecessor, but the widespread sense of obligation to fulfill the dead president’s dreams only enhanced Johnson’s legislative clout. As a former Senate majority leader, he knew the membership’s deepest needs and desires. He also enjoyed strong ties with congressional leaders like Houston’s Albert Thomas, who shared Johnson’s connection with the Texas contractor Brown and Root.

In early December 1963, Johnson needed to get a majority of congressmen to sign a petition that would force the Rules Committee to open debate on Kennedy’s Civil Rights Bill. Johnson looked to Thomas for help with the Texas delegation, despite the fact that Thomas was, according to Caro, “an advocate neither of civil rights nor of interference with House prerogatives.” Caro claims that Johnson assured the Houston congressman of his support for pet projects like the “Mohole” — a deep-ocean drilling project to be carried out by Brown and Root — but also asked Thomas to use his own influence for civil rights.

I cannot find any explicit quid pro quo in the online transcripts of Johnson’s conversations, but the close timing of his phone call to Thomas certainly corroborates Caro’s contention that Johnson knew how to work his former congressional colleagues. Johnson’s spectacular control over the legislature enabled him to do what Kennedy never could: end the Jim Crow South.

As America faces the future, it will again have the choice of delivering an empowered presidency supported by friendly majorities in both houses of government or a weakened executive, like President Obama today, hamstrung by at least one hostile chamber in Congress.

America’s profound education problem — the fact that our people are no longer among the best educated in the world — makes the LBJ model tempting. Our schools are failing too many of our children, and the country’s long-term strength depends on our human capital. Only an empowered president, committed to massive intervention in basic education from coast to coast, can turn that tide.

In these times, could we use another LBJ?

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Neither Obama nor his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, has committed himself to an all-out war for our children. President Obama’s Race to the Top is a good program, but he chose health care as his signal initiative and continues to be distracted by proposals to build new physical infrastructure. Governor Romney’s education program is woefully short on specifics. The value of an imperial presidency depends on what the president decides to focus on.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s imperial presidency also had great downsides. There was too much spending on projects, like Mohole, that delivered more to connected contractors than to ordinary Americans. Johnson’s Great Society had many admirable aspects, but he paid far too little attention to cost containment and left us vast financial commitments, like Medicare, that threaten to overwhelm our economic resources. Johnson also gave us the Vietnam War.

His experience suggests that America’s other great problems — the economy and our fiscal mess — will benefit little from an imperial presidency. Our economic comeback depends more on private entrepreneurs than on additional federal spending, and such spending will only worsen our long-run fiscal problems.

At one time, untrammeled GOP power might have seemed like a path to fiscal restraint, but that didn’t happen under either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. Incumbents face too strong an incentive to spend, and no party wants to bear the sole blame for cutting Medicare benefits. Divided government may not guarantee fiscal prudence, but an imperial presidency ensures more spending.

Johnson’s great power enabled his early achievements, but until we have a president whose central goals are as worthy as civil rights, voters can be forgiven for accepting a weaker presidency.

Edward L. Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard University, is author of “The Triumph of the City.’’ His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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