- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 10, 2014

On the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, President Obama praised former President Lyndon B. Johnson on Thursday for pushing through the landmark legislation and said his own presidency wouldn’t be possible without it.

“That’s why I’m standing here today, because of those efforts, because of that legacy,” Mr. Obama said in a speech at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. “That means we’ve got a debt to repay.”

The president’s remarks came at a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the civil-rights law, which ended an era in America where public facilities were often segregated by race. Johnson signed the landmark legislation in 1964.

Three of the four living ex-presidents — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter — were on hand for the celebration during a three-day civil rights summit.

Paraphrasing Johnson, Mr. Obama asked, “What the hell’s the presidency for if not to fight for causes you believe in?”

The president hailed Johnson’s skills as a dealmaker, a trait that Mr. Obama’s critics accuse him of lacking. And Mr. Obama used the occasion to offer a robust defense of Johnson’s free-spending “Great Society,” which launched a new era of entitlement programs.

“It’s true that, despite laws like the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act and Medicare, our society is still racked with division and poverty,” Mr. Obama said. “Yes, race still colors our political debates, and there have been government programs that have fallen short … It’s perhaps easy to conclude that there are limits to change.”

But Mr. Obama said the nation would be “far worse” without programs such as Food Stamps, Head Start and Medicaid.

“I reject such cynicism because I have lived out the promise of LBJ’s efforts,” he said. “Because Michelle has lived out the legacy of those efforts. Because my daughters have lived out the legacy of those efforts. Because I and millions of my generation were in a position to take the baton that he handed to us.”

Some blacks have criticized Mr. Obama for doing too little to help minorities, and the president has made income inequality and economic opportunity themes of his second term. And there’s some evidence in polls of disillusionment among minorities for Mr. Obama’s policies.

While most black voters still approve of Mr. Obama’s handling of the economy, that support has fallen from 84 percent in 2010 to 72 percent this year, according to Wall Street Journal/NBC News polling. The unemployment rate for blacks is 12.4 percent, more than double the rate of 5.8 percent for whites.

Among Hispanics, approval on the economy for Mr. Obama has fallen from 56 percent to 48 percent from 2010 to this year.

Mr. Obama said Johnson’s greatness evolved from a childhood of poverty in segregated rural Texas and a reluctance to support civil rights during his first 20 years in Congress.

“He knew that he had a unique capacity, as the most powerful white politician from the South, to not merely challenge the convention that had crushed the dreams of so many, but to ultimately dismantle for good the structures of legal segregation,” Mr. Obama said. “He’s the only guy who could do it — and he knew there would be a cost, famously saying the Democratic Party may ‘have lost the South for a generation. ‘That’s what his presidency was for.”

 While the president largely avoided identifying himself with racial issues early in his presidency, he has spoken out more often about race in recent years. For example, he inserted himself into the public discussion of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the black Florida teen fatally shot by a neighborhood-watch volunteer, saying last year that the teen “could have been me 35 years ago.”

And in February, Mr. Obama launched a program called “My Brother’s Keeper” to help at-risk young minority men.

At the commemoration, the president made obvious links between Johnson’s presidency and his own. He lauded Johnson for understanding “that government had a role to play in broadening prosperity.” He praised LBJ for passing Medicare, “a health-care law that opponents described as socialized medicine.”

“If some of this sounds familiar, it’s because today we remain locked in this same great debate about equality and opportunity, and the role of government in ensuring each,” Mr. Obama said.

Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat and a longtime civil-rights leader, said without Johnson’s leadership “there would be no President Jimmy Carter, no President Bill Clinton, no President Barack Obama.”

He said Mr. Obama “understands there is much more work to do to redeem the soul of America,” and praised the president for ending two wars and passing comprehensive health-care reform.

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