President Biden’s push to pass his “Build Back Better” agenda through two major pieces of legislation — the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and the social spending and climate bill currently being considered through the reconciliation budget process — has drawn comparisons to the “Great Society” programs enacted under President Lyndon Johnson 60 years ago. But while the ambitions are similar, the circumstances are quite different.
Here are five facts on the Great Society.
- Eighty-four Great Society bills were passed during the 89th Congress (1965-1966) and signed into law by Johnson.
The “Great Society” was not a single piece of legislation. Rather, it was an umbrella term for Johnson’s broad domestic agenda, including programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, public housing, and environmental policies. By the time Johnson left office, nearly 200 laws enacting or modifying Great Society policies had been signed into law.
- In 1964, Johnson won the largest percentage of the popular vote of any presidential candidate since 1820.
Johnson, who came to office with the assassination of President Kennedy, won a broad mandate in 1964. Johnson’s 61.1% of the vote topped the 60.8% Franklin Roosevelt received in 1936, the 60.7% Richard Nixon won in 1972, and the 58.8% Ronald Reagan got in 1984 — though those three presidents topped LBJ in the Electoral College in those reelections.
- During the 89th Congress, Democrats controlled more than two-thirds of both the Senate and the House.
Johnson’s party had a 68-32 Senate majority and a 295-140 House majority.
- Major Great Society legislation passed with bipartisan support.
The bill that created Medicare and Medicaid received 13 Republican votes in the Senate and 65 in the House. Ten Republicans in the Senate and 22 in the House backed the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, while seven Republicans in the Senate and 26 in the House voted to create the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
- Public support for major Great Society programs remains strong.
A 2019 Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 75% of Americans — including 65% of Republicans — view Medicare favorably. Recent polls also show strong support for both Medicaid and Medicaid expansion. A 2014 YouGov poll also showed majority support for food stamps (58%) and Head Start (60%).