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?


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."


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.

"It is in the nature of political genius," Caro said, "to find a way to solve problems no one else can solve."

In truth, making government "smart" is enormously difficult. Technological changes that moved manufacturing overseas were largely beyond the control of government. A global competition for talent that creates staggeringly high wages for a skilled handful is difficult to reverse. Widening partisanship at home makes any major policy change difficult to implement.

Obama clearly exaggerated the ability of the federal government alone to revive the middle class and the poor. Government programs alone cannot counter the global economic changes that are putting so much pressure on average Americans. And without serious entitlement reform, the federal government will be unable to pay for the initiatives Obama outlined.

At the same time, Republican orthodoxy is wrong. Slashing the size of government will not magically solve our problems. Novel policies that move beyond 1960s liberalism and 1980s conservatism are needed.


In one promising sign, Obama pledged to work with states that come up with the "best ideas" to create jobs, lower energy bills and expand early childhood education.  Outside Washington, many states are trying to find solutions to income inequality, soaring healthcare costs and the need for world-class public schools. This Pew Charitable Trusts website details the innovative efforts that are being made at the state level. Some are adopting starkly conservative approaches. And some decidedly liberal ones.

Obama's new boldness is laudable. But now that he has shown his Johnson-like vision, he should show Johnson-like political skills at implementation. His speech won praise, but his real legacy will be what he achieves legislatively.

Wednesday, the president began a three-state tour designed to build grass-roots pressure on Congress to enact his agenda. Some political analysts believe Obama hopes to win Democratic control of the House in 2014.

But this Congress, including the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, is where legislation is enacted now. Obama cannot wait for an electoral miracle in 2014. He should not operate in perpetual campaign mode. Instead, he and Vice President Joe Biden should find ways to divide Republicans as they did with last month's tax deal. Obama should end the aloofness that handicapped his first term.

Johnson was "ruthless, insecure, compassionate, greedy and secretive" as president, according to Caro. Most of all, he worked members of Congress tirelessly.

Robert Dallek, another Johnson biographer, said LBJ studied his allies and rivals. "He understood what senators needed and what they wanted," Dallek wrote. "...He knew what their tastes and intentions and aims and desires and wishes and hopes were."

Over the past year, Obama and his team demonstrated that they are masters of contemporary American politics. They need to now be Johnson-like masters of Washington as well.

This post also appears at Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.