For Democrats in Congress, a Return to the 'War on Poverty' 50 Years Later

Democrats reignite 'War on Poverty' 50 years after LBJ declared it.

President Johnson shakes the hand of an Appalachia resident on May 7, 1964.

President Lyndon Johnson shakes the hand of an Appalachia resident on May 7, 1964. Democrats in Washington have recently showed renewed interest in poverty as a political issue.

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If President Lyndon Johnson saw the economy today and the policies Democrats were wrestling with to improve it, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, believes he'd be disappointed.

"I am going to challenge us to think bigger. Why can't we think bigger?" Harkin says. "Now is the time when government ought to be borrowing a lot of money and taking that money and putting it into job creation."

[SPECIAL REPORT: The War on Poverty]

In the 50 years since Johnson called for a "War on Poverty" in his State of the Union address, Democrats have distanced themselves from discussions about class and inequality. In recent decades, they have spent a considerable amount of time talking about the middle class, but conversations about the poor, have fallen by the wayside. Even during the Clinton administration, welfare reform, which reduced benefits for the poor, was hailed as a signature achievement for the party.

"Democrats, for a variety of reasons, were in retreat," says Randall Woods, author of "LBJ: Architect of American Ambition." "They allowed conservatives to control the public relations message through the 1990s even throughout the Clinton administration. They portrayed the Great Society as a failure."

Today, in an era plagued with tea party obstructionism in the House of Representatives and rare and carefully assembled compromises in the Senate, Democrats have taken a more pragmatic approach to legislating. That approach has required them to be centrists not liberals, negotiators not idealists.

But with the 2014 election on the horizon, all of that is about to change. After decades of pressure to move to the middle, Democrats are rolling out a political agenda smaller in scale than Johnson's "War on Poverty," but equally as ambitious in today's partisan landscape. Democrats almost stumbled into its new strategy during the 2012 election when President Barack Obama was able to take Republican opponent Mitt Romney's comments and paint him as "out of touch." Now Democrats are hoping they can duplicate its success for the midterms.

"The [Obama] administration has gone from being afraid of these issues to suddenly realizing there is a tremendous amount of political support out there for an aggressive program that tackles the problem of inequality," says Michael Katz, the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of "The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare." "Since 1980, the Democrats have been shifting away from their historic roots and historic strength and it is high time for them to get back to them."

[READ: The War on Poverty by the Numbers]

Fifty years after Johnson's declaration, Democrats are reigniting a fight they hope can mobilize the liberal base and expand support among a new constituency. It is coming at a time when liberal policymakers like New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., are gaining national notoriety and issues like increasing the minimum wage and extending long-term unemployment benefits are topping the Democrats' "to-do" list in Congress. Even Obama is expected to double down on the efforts in his State of the Union address later this month.

"There is a greater perception in this country that the middle class continues to decline, that we have more people living in poverty today than we do ever in the history of the United States and our childhood unemployment rate is the highest in the industrial world," says Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. "Reality has forced many Democrats to seize the issue. When you have more wealth and income inequality today than anytime since the 1920s, it is very hard to avoid the issue."

Of course, Democrats renewed focus on poverty doesn't come out of an abundance of goodwill. Observers point out that Democrats are banking on American sympathy for the cause as a way to change the subject from Obamacare, a policy that is increasingly unpopular among independents. Polling data shows, it might just work. While the census found that just 15 percent of Americans were living in poverty in 2013, the impacts of the poor's plight remain far greater. Between 2009 and 2011, while the economy was still struggling, one in three Americans experienced at least a short-term stint in poverty and more than 50 percent of Americans surveyed say they have at least one person in their family who is poor today.