華盛頓——距離和幾位前總統一同前往德克薩斯出席《民權法案》(Civil Rights Act)50周年紀念活動還有兩天，奧巴馬總統在本周二開始了自己對長期不平等現象的抗爭，他的目標是性別導致的經濟差異。
雖說光鮮靚麗的白宮東廳慶祝儀式，也許跟拉什莫爾山先輩的 事迹無法比擬，但它的確反映了關乎當下美國總統制之境況的一個更廣泛問題，半個世紀前，林登·B·約翰遜(Lyndon B. Johnson)總統在美國社會掀起滔天巨變：在今天，一個美國總統還有可能做出如此壯舉嗎？
是好是壞且不論，在推動影響深遠的立法方面，約翰遜實為美 國總統之翹楚，在他推動下獲得通過的不僅有《民權法案》、還有《選舉權法案》(Voting Rights Act)、聯邦醫療保險法案(Medicare)和與移民、教育、控槍及清潔空氣有關的重要法案。自那之後，還沒有哪位總統取得和他比肩的立法成就，不過 有人辯稱，這是一件好事，原因是政府不應該大包大攬。
然而，奧巴馬和許多民主黨人卻不這麼想。在總統任期的當下 階段，奧巴馬已成為一個象徵，一個讓自由派因其無力推動政府發動變革而感到失望的象徵。共和黨人公開抨擊奧巴馬沒有儘力團結兩黨，一些民主黨人私下裡也對 此多有指責。白宮和許多民主黨人對這種指責嗤之以鼻，他們說，這是蓄意阻撓的共和黨引發的僵局，負責任的應該是他們。
誠然，奧巴馬可以把自己第一任期內的標誌性成就拿出來說 事，其中最顯眼的是他的醫改計劃，這是自約翰遜時代以來，最重大的社會安全福利網絡擴張計劃。他還推動通過了旨在把美國拉出深淵的經濟刺激計劃和旨在避免 另一場經濟危機的華爾街監管規章。不過，這些行動都是在他第一任期內的頭兩年里完成的，當時民主黨還控制着國會，美國還沒有被居高不下的赤字送入財政緊縮 時代。
南衛理公會大學(Southern Methodist University)總統史研究中心主任傑弗瑞·A·恩格爾(Jeffrey A. Engel)說，奧巴馬的醫改計劃最終也許會被視為是與傳承至今的「偉大社會」(Great Society)綱領和「新政」(New Deal)相類似的遺產。
當內政前景渺茫時，總統們往往會求助於外交政策，他們在這 一領域受到的限制較少，國會的作用也較小。奧巴馬從喬治·W·布殊(George W. Bush)手中接掌了一個國家安全職責得到強化的總統寶座，他利用這種職責發動了一場聲勢浩大的無人機戰爭，還主持了一項以追捕恐怖分子為目標的大規模監 聽計劃。
不過，他在處理俄羅斯、敘利亞和中東和平進程問題時也一樣 陷入了困境，在全世界面前，他塑造了一個更為克制的美國的形象。如果說他和約翰遜有任何不同的話，那就是他似乎寧可從伊拉克和阿富汗撤軍，也不願讓越南戰 爭這樣的海外困境拖垮自己的總統任期，給自己的國內成就蒙上任何陰影。
自從「偉大社會」綱領實施以來，美國政壇在許多方面都已發 生改變。約翰遜在任時，民主黨在國會中佔據了極大優勢，哪怕在1966年的中期選舉中，民主黨丟掉了47個眾議院席位，他們依然比共和黨多佔有61席。當 時美國面臨著兩黨均自認不得不出手應對的危機。在當年，政治協議的達成需要的是全然不同的方法，「分豬肉項目」那時叫做「專項撥款」 (earmarks)，現在則已被禁止，這類做法雖然更上不得檯面，不過卻更有效。
話雖如此，拿奧巴馬和約翰遜做比較，恐怕是最能讓他和他的 團隊惱火的事情之一。他們認為，這種比較既輕率又不公平。兩黨議員普遍認為，奧巴馬應該花更多精力勸誘議員、和他們討價還價，甚至是給他們施壓。儘管約翰 遜靠這些手段取得了成功，但這種設想對白宮橢圓形辦公室依然缺乏說服力。
去年，奧巴馬在接受《紐約客》(The New Yorker)雜誌採訪時說，「當他失去歷史性的多數席位、壓倒性勝利的光芒逐漸消退後，他也和歷任的大多數總統一樣，在某一時刻遭遇了和國會之間的問 題。我這麼說，不是想說我長袖善舞，而是想提出，我們的政治體制存在某些結構性的、制度性的現實，這些現實和跟不跟人套近乎沒多少關係。」
過去一年，奧巴馬的立法進程幾乎毫無建樹。2013年，在 康涅狄格州紐敦發生校園槍擊案之後，他甚至沒能推動國會通過作用有限的控槍法案。他轉而採取了推行動作更小的行政措施的策略，利用白宮的權威勸說各州和各 家公司推行某些使命，如提高最低工資。但只靠自己的權力，他也依然可以做出一些重大變革，比如他計劃通過環保監管來控制溫室氣體
White House Memo
For Obama Presidency, Johnson Looms Large
April 10, 2014
President Lyndon B. Johnson delivering a speech in the East Room of the White House in 1964 during the signing of the Civil Rights Act. Johnson enjoyed a level of legislative success that presidents since have found hard to match.
WASHINGTON — Two days before joining other presidents in Texas to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, President Obama tackled enduring inequality himself on Tuesday, in this case economic disparity based on gender.
His action? Signing a memo seeking statistics on contractor salaries and an executive order barring federal contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss their pay.
If the photo-friendly ceremony in the East Room was not exactly the stuff of Mount Rushmore, it did reflect a broader question about the state of the presidency a half-century after Lyndon B. Johnson enacted monumental change in American society: Is it even possible for a president to do big things anymore?
For better or worse, Johnson represented the high-water mark for American presidents pushing through sweeping legislation — not just the Civil Rights Act, but the Voting Rights Act, Medicare and major measures on immigration, education, gun control and clean air. No president since has approached that level of legislative success, although there are people who argue that is a good thing because government should not be so intrusive.
But Mr. Obama and many Democrats are not among them. At this stage of his presidency, Mr. Obama has become a symbol of liberal frustration over his inability to use government to bring about change. Republicans publicly, and some Democrats privately, blame Mr. Obama for not doing more to work across the aisle. The White House and many Democrats scoff at that, laying stalemate at the feet of what they call an obstructionist Republican Party.
Certainly, Mr. Obama can point to landmark actions from his first term, most notably his health care program, the most significant expansion of the social safety net since the Johnson era. He also pushed through an economic stimulus intended to pull the country back from the abyss and Wall Street regulations intended to avert another crisis. But those actions were accomplished in his first two years, back when he had a Democratic Congress and before sky-high deficits brought on an age of austerity.
Mr. Obama now confronts the likelihood that he may not come close to anything like those first 24 months in his final six years in office. Day in and day out, the president with the grand aspirations finds himself signing orders and memos that barely move the needle toward the goals he outlined for himself.
“I’m going to do my small part,” he said on Tuesday as he signed the executive measures.
Jeffrey A. Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, said Mr. Obama’s health program might ultimately be seen as similar to the lasting legacies of the Great Society or the New Deal.
But the reality of the modern presidency, he said, is that big things are best done right away before second terms devolve into an exercise in aggravation. “It’s more difficult to achieve massive change after that initial mandate because money and media and constant pinpricks can very effectively take the wind out of any president’s sails very quickly,” Mr. Engel said.
When domestic prospects recede, presidents often turn to foreign policy, where they have fewer constraints and Congress is a bit player. Mr. Obama inherited an empowered national security presidency from George W. Bush and has used it to wage a vigorous drone war and preside over an expansive surveillance program in the pursuit of terrorists.
But he has also had a difficult time dealing with Russia, Syria and the Middle East peace process, and has projected a more restrained American role in the world. If anything, Mr. Obama seems intent on being the anti-Johnson by withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan rather than letting an overseas quagmire like Vietnam come to dominate his presidency and overshadow any domestic accomplishments.
Washington has changed in many ways since the Great Society. Johnson enjoyed such large Democratic majorities that even when his party lost 47 House seats in the 1966 midterm elections, Democrats still held 61 more than Republicans. The country faced crises both parties felt compelled to address. And political deal making then was different with pork projects called earmarks that are now banned — seedier, perhaps, but also effective.
Since the Johnson era, the country has grown more skeptical about government. Even Mr. Obama’s biggest legislative project, the health care program, was based on helping uninsured Americans buy coverage in the private market, rather than setting up a government-run system like Medicare. But it still stirred widespread opposition.
And the political parties, both ideologically diverse in the 1960s, have grown more homogeneous.
“The nature of politics has changed,” said Jennifer Palmieri, the White House communications director. “The electorate is more polarized. I think often members of Congress are more concerned with how the voter on the more enthusiastic side of their party is going to react than they would have 50 years ago. That’s a real change.”
Still, few things irritate Mr. Obama and his team more than the comparison to Johnson, which they consider facile and unfair. The notion that Mr. Obama should exert more energy in cajoling, bargaining and even pressuring lawmakers is a common assessment on both sides of the aisle, but it remains unpersuasive in the Oval Office, despite Johnson’s successes.
“When he lost that historic majority, and the glow of that landslide victory faded, he had the same problems with Congress that most presidents at one point or another have,” Mr. Obama told The New Yorker last year. “I say that not to suggest that I’m a master wheeler-dealer, but rather to suggest that there are some structural institutional realities to our political system that don’t have much to do with schmoozing.”
After Mr. Obama experienced a year of scant legislative progress — he failed to push through even a modest gun control bill in 2013 after the schoolhouse massacre in Newtown, Conn. — the president has turned to a strategy of enacting smaller executive actions and using his bully pulpit to persuade states and companies to pick up the cause of, say, raising the minimum wage. And he still has the power to make major changes unilaterally, as he plans to do through environmental regulations of greenhouse gas emissions.
“He would prefer that Congress pick up this legislation and pass it,” Ms. Palmieri said after Tuesday’s event on pay equity. “It irks him sometimes. But he’s also a pragmatic guy.”
She added: “Washington’s not the end-all, be-all. It’s the United States of America, and he’s the leader of it.”