He quoted Jack Kennedy but sounded more like Lyndon Johnson. In his State of the Union address on 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, the 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 an attack on 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 stand today as perhaps the greatest legislative achievement of any modern president. Johnson’s laws – from the Civil Rights Act, to Medicaid, Medicare and Head Start, to sweeping federal urban renewal and education programmes – changed the face of American society.
Obama is different from Johnson and governing in a different time. 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 emphasised 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 and to future generations,” he declared. He was careful, however, to avoid comparisons with the big government programmes of the 1960s. “It is not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government.”
A central question, though, is: Can the 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.
In truth, making government “smart” is difficult. Technological changes that moved manufacturing overseas were beyond the control of government. A global competition for talent that creates 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 programmes 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 these. 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 real legacy will be what he achieves legislatively.
On 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 is where legislation is enacted now. Obama cannot wait for an electoral miracle in 2014. Instead, he and Vice-President Joe Biden should find ways to divide Republicans as they did with last month’s tax deal.
Robert Dallek, another Johnson biographer, said Johnson studied his allies and rivals. “He understood what senators needed and what they wanted.”
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.
David Rohde is a Reuters columnist, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and a former The New York Times reporter. His opinions are his own.