At the top of the new president’s agenda was enactment of Kennedy’s proposals on civil rights and taxes. The proposals had been made earlier in the year, but Congress had failed to take final action on them. Now, however, Congress acted. With Johnson in the White House, Congress behaved in domestic affairs, as it had not done since Franklin Roosevelt’s first term. In 1964 it passed the Tax Reduction Act, which reflected the economic theory that at times the federal government must spend more than it takes in order to stimulate economic growth. Congress also passed a very broad civil rights law that attacked segregation, banned discrimination in public accommodations, and eliminated restrictions in job opportunities. And these new laws were only Johnson’s largest victories.
The situation in the country, as well as Johnson’s talents, contributed to these accomplishments in 1964. Kennedy had done much of the preparatory work, and his assassination had generated a national mood that tended to remove opposition to his proposals. The militant civil rights movement exerted pressure, and scholars and publicists alerted the public to the existence of major problems in American society, poverty above all. But Johnson’s leadership was an important factor. From the first he employed all of his tested techniques for dealing with Congress, and he supplemented these with frequent speeches that, in effect, appealed over the heads of the congressmen to the people themselves.
Since the spring of 1964, Johnson had talked of building a “Great Society,” and he had organized a series of “task forces” to help give concrete meaning to this concept. With their help, by January 1965, he was armed with a series of messages and drafts of bills.
The first sessions of the 89th Congress passed into law a variety of proposals, some of which had been bottled up for years. Medicare, a system of health insurance for the elderly under the Social Security program, was established. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed illiteracy tests and removed other obstacles that tended to prevent blacks from exercising their right to vote. Two new federal departments–Housing and Urban Development, and Transportation–were set up. Federal aid to primary and secondary schools increased substantially. Responding to Johnson’s call for an “unconditional war on poverty,” the Congress enacted legislation liberalizing unemployment compensation, expanding the food stamp program, and enlarging opportunities for youth employment. No session of Congress since 1935 had matched this one in attacks upon social and economic problems.