Obama’s ‘war on inequality’
DAVID ROHDEIn an audacious State of the Union 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.”
In his 1964 State of the Union address, Johnson introduced the legislation that became known as the “War on Poverty.” Those laws stand today as perhaps the greatest legislative achievement of any modern president. Whether or not one agrees with him, Johnson’s laws 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. Those differences, though, make Obama’s second inaugural address and State of the Union all the more remarkable.
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.
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.
Robert A. Caro, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and famed Johnson biographer, argued in an interview with Reuters that Johnson’s “awesome” political skills could have overcome today’s partisan gridlock in Washington.
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.
At the same time, Republican orthodoxy is wrong. Slashing the size of government will not magically solve our problems.
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.
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.
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 find ways to divide Republicans as they did with last month’s tax deal. Obama should end the aloofness that handicapped his first term.
*This Article was taken from Reuters