Regardless of your opinion of the outcome of these laws,
there is no question that major change happened in 1964, and it
happened quickly. These laws marked a sharp departure from the past.
Government bureaucracy, as well as the federal budget, ballooned in
size. Lives changed.
When Obama came to office last year with a Democratic majority in both houses of government, many thought it was 1964 all over again. He promised major legislation in health care, education, and infrastructure.
One year later, Congress still has made no progress on health care. Their Democratic majority is slowly eroding, and the public has grown cynical.
Why was Johnson so successful in 1964, and Obama has not yet passed health care reform?
There are many possible answers to this question. Instead of giving you one definitive answer, I'll propose three possible answers to that question and let you debate this matter in class.
1) Some might point to intervening variables, including the failing economy and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 1964, the economy was booming, and Americans were wealthier than ever before. They were more willing to part with the tax money than Americans are today.
2) Stephen Skowronek, in addition to coming up with this nifty model for classifying presidents, wrote that it has grown increasingly difficult for presidents to make change in the United States, because of the thick layers of bureaucracy that have formed and the customs that have arisen. In the past, when a Reconstruction President came to office, it was easier for him to act as a "battering ram" and create new orders. Now, even strong, talented presidents can only make small, incremental changes.
Skowronek might say that bureaucracies and powerful interest groups have arisen in the past several decades, and they have a strong interest in perpetuating the status quo around health care policy. They drag down the system and prevent change.
3) Others might argue that Obama is having trouble today, because all change is difficult in the United States. 1964 was the outlier or an anomaly. What made 1964 significant wasn't the party composition of Congress, but the mood within the country, which was unusually optimistic and in agreement that change needed to happen. That broad agreement and optimism from within the public was a freakish blip in our nation's history.
That unusual public spirit is the only way that radical change can happen in our country, because our governmental system was designed by James Madison, the master worrier. Madison was terrified of rapid change. He worried that with the increasing the franchise, the unwashed masses might make unreasonable and unwise demands of their government, so he put in all sorts of fail safes into the constitution. There are checks upon checks and a million ways for bill to go off course. Just look at how difficult it has been for the conference committee to find compromise between the Senate and the House versions of the Health Care bill.
Which explanation seems most plausible to you? Do you have a better answer to the question?