Lyndon B. Johnson's Presidency

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What were the major differences between the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson and that of Ronald Reagan? Any similarities?  

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The role of government in the American economy and society was a significant component in the presidencies of both Johnson and Reagan. Johnson's Great Society program, with its significant expansion of the welfare state, represented the high point of post-war liberalism. Reagan's rollback of government was, in turn, the defining element of the conservative revolution of the 1980s.

Both Reagan and Johnson were young men during the days of the Great Depression. Yet, they derived radically different lessons from their respective experiences. Reagan, though initially a New Deal Democrat, came to believe that government was a burden, especially on businesses, and was intruding more and more into people's lives, restricting their liberty and undermining their capacity to stand on their own two feet. Similar to other conservatives, Reagan was particularly scathing about the welfare state, seeing it as a bloated, expensive system that undermined both individual initiative and family life, and yet which didn't even adequately deal with the problems of poverty it was meant to solve.

Johnson, for his part, had seen that New Deal projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) had made a huge difference to the lives of millions previously deprived of electrical power and job opportunities. For him, government was an enabler which gave people the chance to make a decent living, to get a good education, and to get on in life, all free from the terrible specter of absolute poverty. Only government had the power, the resources, and the strategic vision necessary to make a real assault on poverty. Leaving everything to the market, or private charity, simply hadn't worked. People didn't need a welfare system that was simply a safety net, something that saved them from total destitution; they needed a system that would give them the means and the opportunity to make something of their lives.

In foreign affairs, by contrast, there was a remarkable degree of convergence between the two men. Both were strident Cold Warriors who devoted much time, energy, and resources into combating what they saw as the worldwide threat of Communism. Reagan adopted a notably robust stance towards dealing with the Soviet Union. He escalated defense spending to unprecedented levels, effectively forcing the Soviets to catch up, something they couldn't hope to do with a relatively weak and inefficient economy.

Reagan also involved the United States, more directly than his immediate predecessor Jimmy Carter had done, in the affairs of Latin America. Under the Reagan Administration, the United States offered substantial military, political and financial aid to various anti-Communist resistance groups, such as the Nicaraguan Contras, and dictatorships, such as that of Noriega in Panama, who could be relied upon to fight the spread of Communist influence.

The defining feature of Johnson's foreign policy was his massive escalation of America's involvement in Vietnam. Johnson passionately believed not only that the Vietnam War could be won, but that it must be won. Otherwise, Communism would spread in South East Asia, threatening America's strategic interests there. Vietnam came...

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to define Johnson's presidency; it also ended it. Although both Reagan and Johnson shared similar attitudes to the dangers of Communism, their respective foreign policies led to radically different results. Whereas Johnson was blamed more than anyone else for US failures in Vietnam, Reagan was widely credited for helping to bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union just over two years after he left office.

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There were some differences between the Johnson and the Reagan presidencies. The main difference was the role government would play in our lives. President Johnson wanted to launch a series of programs as part of the Great Society. These programs expanded the role of the government. Programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act were ways President Johnson increased the role of government. President Reagan, on the other hand, believed the government played too big of a role in our lives. He proposed cutting social programs and lowering taxes. There were fewer government rules and regulations as deregulation was common during the Reagan years. Less money was provided for school lunch programs, and some student loan programs were cut.

Both presidents fought communism. President Johnson was far less successful than President Reagan. Vietnam became a very unpopular war while Johnson was president. There were major protests against our involvement in the Vietnam War. Reagan believed we needed to increase our military strength and power to fight communism. President Reagan’s “peace through strength” philosophy was one that he felt the Soviet Union couldn’t afford to match. He was far more successful in dealing with communism than President Johnson. President Reagan laid the groundwork for the collapse of communism.

Both President Johnson and President Reagan wanted to be known as great leaders. President Johnson’s Great Society program was modeled after President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program. President Reagan wanted to be known as the president who restored American prestige and military might throughout the world. Both presidencies had differences, yet, at the same time, some similarities.

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