Obama's LBJ Moment: The War on Inequality Is the New 'War on Poverty'

The president wants to harness the power of government even as he promises to shrink federal spending. Can government ever be as "smart" as Obama wants?

Reuters

He quoted Jack Kennedy but sounded more like Lyndon Johnson.

In an audacious State of the Union address Tuesday, President Barack Obama made sweeping proposals to reduce poverty, revive the middle class and increase taxes on the "well off." While careful to not declare it outright, an emboldened second-term president laid out an agenda that could be called a "war on inequality."

"There are communities in this country where no matter how hard you work, it is virtually impossible to get ahead," Obama declared in a blunt attack one a core conservative credo. "And that's why we need to build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class for all who are willing to climb them."

In his 1964 State of the Union address, Johnson introduced the legislation that became known as the "War on Poverty." Those laws - along with many others he shepherded - stand today as perhaps the greatest legislative achievement of any modern president. Whether or not one agrees with him, Johnson's laws - from the Civil Rights Act, to Medicaid, Medicare and Head Start, to sweeping federal urban renewal and education programs - changed the face of American society.

Obama, of course, is very different from LBJ and governing in a vastly different time. While Johnson excelled at cajoling legislators, Obama reportedly finds it distasteful. Where Johnson could offer new federal programs, Obama must maneuver in an age where the federal government is distrusted. And while Johnson had full government coffers, Obama lives in an era of crushing fiscal constraint.

Those differences, though, make Obama's second inaugural address and Tuesday's State of the Union all the more remarkable. As Richard W. Stevenson noted in the New York Times, "he continued trying to define a 21st-century version of liberalism that could outlast his time in office and do for Democrats what Reagan did for Republicans."

'A SMARTER GOVERNMENT'

Throughout, the speech, Obama emphasized the collective over the individual, and concluded by hailing the notion of "citizenship." "This country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another," he declared, "and to future generations."

He was careful, however, to avoid comparisons with the big government programs of the 1960s.

"It is not a bigger government we need," Obama emphasized, "but a smarter government."

A central question, though, is: Can government be smarter, particularly in an age of partisanship? Can it counter the global economic forces that are battering the middle class and poor?

Johnson faced challenges as well, but he was a master of persuading his political opponents to support his proposals. Whether they agreed with them or not.

Robert A. Caro, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and famed Johnson biographer, argued in an interview with Reuters last spring that Johnson's "awesome" political skills could have overcome today's partisan gridlock in Washington.

Presented by

David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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