Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson (left) and Joe Biden (R) give speeches. (AP Photo) (Photo by Ron Adar / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

President Joe Biden’s closing message before the midterms emphasized the stakes for women following the demise of Roe v. Wade: “If you give me two more senators in the United States Senate, I promise you, I promise you, we’re going to codify Roe and once again make Roe the law of the land.” Nearly 60 years ago, another president promised to codify rights if activists could secure the required votes.

When Biden took office days after insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol, many with Confederate flags, he drew comparisons to Abraham Lincoln. After passing significant economic and social spending packages, Biden welcomed references to Franklin D. Roosevelt. As inflation and gas prices rose, observers noted the similarities to Jimmy Carter.

Perhaps the most unappreciated presidential parallel is between Biden and Lyndon Johnson. Both became unexpected civil rights presidents and promised sweeping legislation if voters and activists delivered crucial support.

When he was sworn in aboard the presidential aircraft in Dallas on November 22, 1963, Johnson was not considered a civil rights champion. A southerner, LBJ had gained power in the Senate by cozying up to the region’s segregationists, who dominated committee chairmanships and backed his failed bid for the 1960 presidential nomination. Privately, he used racial epithets uttered in his deep Texas drawl. But LBJ also saw poverty and discrimination firsthand.

Initially, that fight was for Mexican American students in a segregated school in Cotulla, Texas, where LBJ taught in the 1920s and fought for better supplies. As a senator in the 1950s, Johnson faced a balancing act on civil rights.

As the anti–Jim Crow movement gained traction, LBJ recognized that his presidential ambitions were impossible without support from Black voters and northern liberals, including powerful unions. The party would not nominate a segregationist in 1960, so Johnson, then the Senate majority leader, used his legendary powers of persuasion to secure the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Modest in scope, it was nevertheless the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. Johnson’s support for the bill made him an attractive candidate to be John F. Kennedy’s running mate.

Despite the shift in popular opinion, Kennedy could not pass a civil rights bill banning discrimination in employment and accommodations. Segregationist senators retained enough power to enforce a filibuster of civil rights legislation. After he took office in 1963, LBJ invited the leaders of the five most prominent civil rights organizations over for one-on-one meetings: Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Whitney Young of the National Urban League, Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality, and A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

Johnson convinced these champions of freedom that he was committed to civil rights legislation. “I’ll take care of the bill itself,” he told them, adding that everyone “will have his assignment.” LBJ gave MLK a list of the congressmen who had not yet signed a critical petition, which would release the legislation from a committee hold. He instructed MLK to work on the Republican names on the list.

“If we can find the votes, we will win. If we don’t find the votes, we will lose,” LBJ told Wilkins. Johnson would, of course, go on to sign not only the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, but also the expansion of social programs, including Medicaid, Medicare, and Head Start.

Six decades later, and President Biden is another unexpected activist. A graduate of parochial schools, the proud Irish Catholic has been honest about his personal opposition to abortion. Early in his career, he voted against a 1977 compromise that authorized Medicaid funding for abortions for victims of rape and incest in addition to concerns for the life of the mother. He later moderated that position but always supported the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits using Medicaid funds for abortion except when the woman’s life is endangered. But as with Johnson, his national ambitions made him an unlikely progressive on abortion.

In 1987, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden oversaw the confirmation hearings of President Ronald Reagan’s controversial Supreme Court nominee, Robert Bork. While Reagan’s earlier nominees, Sandra Day O’Connor (the first woman nominated to the Court) and Antonin Scalia (the first Italian American named to the Court), had been easily confirmed, Democrats were in no mood to rubber-stamp a conservative transformation of the nation’s highest court.

Bork’s nomination placed Biden front and center on the national stage and offered him a platform to champion privacy rights, including abortion. Bork had repeatedly written that any constitutional right to privacy was a myth, and he was particularly scornful of Roe. Under Biden’s leadership, Bork’s nomination went down to defeat.

As Biden readied his 2008 bid for the presidency, he wrote in his pre-campaign book that he wasn’t comfortable imposing his views on others and supported the right of every woman to make that choice for herself with the guidance of her doctor. When he sought the presidency in 2020, 32 years after his initial bid, Biden had even adopted the language of contemporary reproductive activists. There was no “keep it safe, legal, and rare” language, which Bill Clinton had employed. There was no more allegiance to the Hyde Amendment and restricting federal funds for abortion.

When the Supreme Court overruled Roe this year, Biden, now president, became even more of an activist, for the first time openly considering the abolition of the filibuster and the expansion of the Supreme Court, once verboten for an institutionalist such as himself. Like LBJ, Biden had not only survived but thrived for decades in Washington, D.C., thanks to a honed sense for shifting political winds. While his personal position on abortion hasn’t changed, his political stances reflect voter preferences, just like LBJ.

The Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling didn’t just overturn the federal right to abortion. It also invalidated the constitutional right to privacy. The right to privacy is the essential underpinning for the cases that established the right to interracial marriage, the right to same-sex marriage, the right to privacy in the bedroom, and the right to contraception.

Like the civil rights movement, privacy rights were the product of decades-long fights by dedicated activists. Women and health care professionals campaigned for safe and legal medical care for women, including contraception and abortion access. LGBTQ couples pushed for the right to marry the person they loved and demanded that the state recognize those unions.

In the 1950s, activists lobbied for the right to vote, the right to be judged by a jury of peers, and the right to access public accommodations. Different rights are at stake today, but these rights are no less essential to a free human experience.

Justice Clarence Thomas has encouraged the Court to overturn these rights. But they could be codified by Congress with enough votes. As Biden said, “If you care about the right to choose, then you gotta vote.” LBJ got the votes he needed to pass landmark legislation that is still the gold standard for civil rights reform. The election results on Tuesday will determine whether Biden can achieve similar reforms or whether his civil rights ambitions will die in Congress.

Lindsay M. Chervinsky

Lindsay M. Chervinsky is a presidential historian and senior fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University and the author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution. Follow Lindsay on Twitter @lmchervinsky.