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.”