Obama’s ‘war on inequality’

By David Rohde
February 14, 2013

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.

 

5 comments

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“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.”

The man has not got the slightest understanding of the word “citizenship” when he would award such status on the eleven plus MILLION criminal fence-jumpers that followed in the footprints of three MILLION plus given amnesty in 1986 and multiplying relentlessly ever since. These people won’t assimilate, so WE now provide bilingual everything. Who pays? Not THEM. The good ol’ American taxpayer.

They flood our hospitals, our schools, our parks and playgrounds, our food banks, our prisons and our social services (with fake or stolen Social Security numbers or fake green cards sold openly in their barrio communities)and have doubled the size of the “underground economy”. For them it’s all FREE!

For all this they “return” pennies on the dollar to our GDP. Much of their “earnings” go untaxed, and much is sent to Mexico and points south instead of dominoing through OUR economy three or four times like “normal” wages. They accept no obliation to anyone but themselves.

Their tastes and intentions and aims and desires and wishes and hopes are NOT those of the Greatest Generation or subsequent American generations. But today all bow to the future masters of this country (until it falls on it’s face).

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

I think the comparisons to LBJ and his era are well said. In current times I don’t think LBJ’s methods would work. Directing government to implement things no longer works, is not effective, and more often than not results are not what was intended. All that can be done in government at this point in time is applying influence. The more a group can apply, in the right places, the more likely they can control the outcome. President Obama’s administration I think has little direct influence with the powers that control what they want to change. They are instead trying to use the public support attained through the President to apply pressure in other new ways. It appears to be confusing the older generation politicians that are still living in LBJ’s time, and trying desperately to bring it back. I don’t think they will succeed as they are also trying to use counter measures from that era too.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

I think President Obama’s second election showed that he does indeed embody the hopes of the subsequent generations. At least for the several of them. I would say three out of five, but others will argue that I’m sure. I don’t think the author of this opinion had any thoughts of immigration in mind, but since three commenters will no doubt move it in that direction, I saw another clear (to me) association to LBJ’s time.
The vast majority of the citizens of this country believe that the Mexican border is a serious issue and needs to be addressed. But the two older and some of the middle generations view the problem from their time periods and do not understand the younger generations viewpoint at all. The younger generations are in the same dilemma, wondering why the obvious (to them) problems of the border are not being addressed by the two older generation in power.
Both want the same result, but for different reasons. To quote a line from the band Butthole Surfers, “It’s hard to see just how you look thru other people eyes”. And yes, I understand the name of that band itself is good indicator of the gulf between the elders and the millennial generations.
The Mexicans taking over and diluting our society and the whole “welfare state” arguments are directly out of the LBJ era. To the younger generations this is not the issue at all, drug cartels and global economic issue are the problem.
It is a shame we can’t get the common result accomplished because neither side will listen to the other long enough to realize they actually have the same goal.
I think the problem has changed from “To many people want to do nothing” to “We have to many people with nothing to do.”.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

@tmc,

Good points, well stated.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Dear David Rohde,

Benghazi – Who told General Ham to “Stand Down”, and why Retire”? By John Griffing at Nov 17, 2012 7:26 AM

Just exactly what happened in Benghazi, Libya, in a terror attack that left four Americans dead, is the subject of heated national discussion—especially now that elections are complete. A critical concern is “WHO issued a Stand-Down” order under which help was not dispatched and lead to the death of our four Americans under attack from al-Qaida.
 
Now apparently one person who would be in a position to offer details, is Gen. Carter Ham, has allegedly made the decision to “retire.”

Already uncovered in the controversy is how there had been pleas for more security for the Americans in that location, how forces who were nearby could have responded, and how there were orders stopping that from happening.

So far the main players have given their statements, and they all “made up” facts to fit the situation so none of them can be blamed. Now Gen. Carter Ham is the ONLY person who KNOWS who told HIM not to send planes and troops but to “Stand-Down”. An order of this magnitude had to come from the White House Situation Room. Fox News reported less than a week after the attack, that Obama, Biden, Hillary and Panetta were all there when the video news of the attack came in. The order to stand-down in this kind of situation is the same as to execute them, which is punishable by Treason or at least Impeachment. Someone needs to get a sworn statement in writing from General Carter Ham who is not a politician.

Posted by kodaker | Report as abusive