Remarks at Presidential Leadership Symposium

On March 14-15, 2012 Roosevelt House organized an academic conference entitled Revisiting the Great Society: The Role of Government from FDR to LBJ to Today. The two-day event featured presentations by scholars, policymakers, and former national political leaders on the foundational initiatives of and ideas behind the Great Society. Four major panels — health care, education, poverty, and civil rights — sparked vigorous discussions about the role of government in American society and popular attitudes towards American political institutions then and now. Jonathan Fanton opened the conference with these remarks. To view the full conference schedule, click here.

Text of the speech:

Good morning. I am Jonathan Fanton, Interim Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute, and it is my pleasure to welcome you to these historic homes of Franklin and Eleanor, and Franklin’s mother, Sara. This is an appropriate setting for our conference which bears the subtitle of The Role of Government from FDR and LBJ to Today. Think back to the fall of 1932 as the New Deal took shape in this place, cabinet officers like Frances Perkins recruited here, commitments to programs like Social Security made in the President’s study on the second floor.

Thanks to the vision of President Jennifer Raab, Roosevelt House is now Hunter College’s Public Policy Institute, offering undergraduate programs in public policy and international human rights, sponsoring events for the general public and encouraging policy research across disciplinary lines. This conference is emblematic of Roosevelt House’s mission.

We heard yesterday about how deeply Lyndon Johnson respected Franklin Roosevelt.  Johnson said this at the 20th anniversary of FDR’s death:
“Today’s America is his America more than it is the work of any man… . He had the gardener’s touch. In some mysterious way he could reach out, and where there was fear, came hope; where there was resignation, came excitement; where there was indifference, came compassion. And perhaps we can remember him most, not for what he did, but for what he made us want to do. We are trying to do it still. And I suppose we always will…”

And I suppose this is what we are about today.

The conference planners made a conscious decision to focus on LBJ’s domestic record from which we have much to learn. But we should not shy away from foreign policy and Vietnam as we explore presidential leadership, relations with Congress, public opinion and difficult budgetary trade-offs.

Robert Caro’s moving keynote last evening helped us appreciate the roots of Johnson’s instinctive passion for using the power of the presidency to fight poverty and discrimination .

The lively panel that followed gave us insight into how he did it, his love of the political process and steadfast commitment to making it work to fulfill the values and principles of the charter documents of our country.

Today we will see those skills in action as we take a deep look at four of Johnson’s major accomplishments: reducing poverty and opening opportunity, advancing the quality and availability of health care, expanding federal support for education, and promoting civil rights and confronting discrimination.

Each moderator will pose key questions for a conversation among our distinguished panelists. Then you will be invited to join the discussion. We hope each panel will touch on four themes:

    • presidential leadership;
    • the role and responsibility of government;
    • the challenges of implementing federal programs, including the Great Society’s successes, disappointments and unintended consequences;
    • the role of politics in framing, passing and carrying out programs, both then and now.

The last 100 years have seen a remarkable evolution in how we think about the role of government. The progressive era of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the New Deal, the Great Society were three periods of invention and commitment to a more just and humane society. But it is going on 50 years since Lyndon Johnson left office, close to five decades without a sustained focus on reform.

Problems have mounted, inequality has grown, unrest is brewing, and faith in government is at near record lows. The statistics are a powerful reminder of Johnson’s injunction that we have more work to do.

    • 49 million people, or 16% of all Americans, live below the poverty line (Reuters).
    • Only 18% of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in the country (gallup.com, January 11, 2012).

Lyndon Johnson, speaking at the Woodrow Wilson School in 1966, put a challenge to the young men and women training for careers in public service. Imagine him here today talking to our faculty and students in the home of his mentor.

He said: [You can] “help us answer the question that Franklin Roosevelt… asked more than 30 years ago: Will it be said that ‘Democracy was a great dream, but it could not do the job? President Roosevelt did not doubt the answer.  … With his detractors and his defacers, with his dissenters and his doubters… he began to organize the modern Office of the President and to bring American government into the mid-twentieth century.”

Well we are now in a new century, facing an important election which will be a referendum on how well presidential power is being exercised. Part of the test will be the terms on which the 2012 campaign is waged. This is an inflection point in our history, a measure of how well our democracy mediates sharply divergent views on the role of government and contending interpretations of the values and principles upon which our nation is founded.

Presidential leadership has never been more important. And so, too, is the art of politics. As Johnson said of FDR, “He knew that leadership required not only vision but the skill to move men and to build institutions. And like every one of our great presidents, President Roosevelt was a great politician. He proved again and again that politics, scorned by so many, is an honorable calling.”

We have much to learn from Lyndon Johnson’s leadership as we gather in the home of the man from whom he learned so much. Perhaps we will distill some lessons from their experience which will benefit our current leaders.

To introduce our keynote speaker for today, I am pleased to call on Joe Califano from whom I have learned so much. I had the privilege of working with him at the start of his tenure as HEW Secretary. As the chief domestic advisor to LBJ, Joe was deeply involved in shaping and implementing Great Society programs. He is author of a dozen books including A Presidential Nation and The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson.  A lawyer by training, he is really a student of history but also an activist with a passion to learn from the past.

He wrote a dozen years ago, “What Lyndon Johnson was about during his presidency was social and economic revolution, nothing less. To what extent he succeeded and how beneficial his successes were I leave ….to the judgment of history.”  Well, that is a good challenge for our work today.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Joseph Califano.

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