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Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan: Two Views of Federal Power

95 min
  • How did President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society Speech and President Ronald Reagan’s First Inaugural Address reveal their views on the constitutional powers of the federal government?

Students will:

  • Understand Lyndon Johnson’s stated goals for the Great Society.
  • Understand Ronald Reagan’s stated goals for his administration.
  • Contrast and evaluate the two Presidents’ views on the scope of constitutional federal power.

  • Handout A: Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan: Two Views of Federal Power
  • Handout B: Who Said It?
  • Handout C: “The Great Society,” Lyndon Johnson, 1964
  • Handout D: First Inaugural Address, Ronald Reagan, 1981
  • Handout E: Wordles
  • The United States Constitution

Have students read Handout A: Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan: Two Views of Federal Power and answer the questions.



Before class, copy, cut out, and post around the room the quotations on Handout B: Who Said It? Have students circulate around the room and mark on their own numbered paper whether they believe each statement was made by Lyndon Johnson or Ronald Reagan. When students have finished, go over the correct responses as a large group.

Show the thematic documentary Powers Herein Granted: The Presidency and Federal Power.



Divide the class into pairs. Give each pair one copy each of Handout C: “The Great Society,” Lyndon Johnson, 1964 and Handout D: First Inaugural Address, Ronald Reagan, 1981. Allow students time to read the speeches.

Give each pair two highlighters of different colors. They should highlight sentences where the speaker suggests increasing federal power in one color, and sentences where the speaker suggests scaling back federal power in the other color. Have students look at the speeches side by side when they have finished. What do they notice?



Using Handout C, have students skim the Johnson speech and underline words or phrases they think are important. In the margins, write down words that come to mind to describe the speech. For example, hopeful, inspiring, etc. Have students repeat this process for the Reagan speech on Handout D.

Divide the chalkboard (or presentation technology) in half, and assign one half to each speech.

Beginning with the Johnson speech, invite a student to write one word or short phrase on the board that in some way represents the speech—an oft-repeated word, the mood of the speech, etc. The word should be written in a size proportional to the intensity of the connection to the speech. For example, if an idea appears ten times in the speech, it should be written larger on the board than a word which only appeared once.

Invite four or five more students to add words/phrases.

Repeat this process for the Reagan speech.

Distribute or project Handout E: Wordles. Explain to students that the images are a computer-generated display of the frequency of single words within the two speeches. How do they compare to the ones made by the class? How do they compare to each other? Are students surprised by anything in the Wordles?

Distribute copies of The United States Constitution. Ask students to look at Articles I and II, describing the powers of the legislative and executive branches.

Ask students to assess the constitutionality of each President’s actions. Where did the constitutional authority for their actions come from (if anywhere)?

Have students write one to two paragraphs in response to the questions: Because a federal law is well-intentioned or a good idea, does that mean it is constitutional? If not, what is the difference?

Have students select a Great Society law or program and research the following questions:

  • What was the law’s goal?
  • What programs were put in place under this law?
  • What were arguments for/against the program?
  • What was the outcome of the law? Did it meet its goal?
  • Is this law/program still in place? If not, why was it repealed or discontinued? If so, what arguments exist in favor/against its continuation?

Students may wish to research:

  • Economic Opportunity Act of 1964
  • Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964
  • Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965
  • Higher Education Act of 1965
  • Social Security Act of 1965
  • National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966
  • Highway Safety Act of 1966
  • Public Broadcasting Act of 1967
  • Truth-in-Lending Act of 1968
  • Bilingual Education Act of 1968

Student Handouts

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