President Obama is starting the new year with a plan to rebuild his credibility bit by bit, largely by billing himself as a left-of-center populist and portraying opposition Republicans as hopelessly out of touch with everyday America.
A big part of his recovery strategy will be giving an effective State of the Union address in prime time on Jan. 28, when he intends to set forth his agenda for 2014 and beyond.
Elements of Obama's approach are already becoming clear, and addressing income inequality will be a big objective. This issue is being played out this week in Congress as legislators consider a bill to extend long-term unemployment benefits, which Obama strongly supports.
More broadly, Obama and Democratic congressional leaders argue that while the rich have done well in recent years, the middle class and the poor have lagged behind in income and economic well-being, and this gap must be closed. Obama's answer is to press ahead with a batch of populist initiatives, such as raising the minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $10.10, extending those unemployment benefits, providing more federal money to education and job creation projects such as building roads and bridges, broadening Medicaid to include poor adults without children, and expanding early childhood programs to enhance young people's learning skills. He also favors higher taxes on the rich and on big corporations.
Obama's approach echoes President Lyndon B. Johnson's declaration 50 years ago this week of a War on Poverty. Johnson's pledge was stark and daring. "Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it," he said in his State of the Union address on Jan. 8, 1964. Johnson got most of what he wanted from Congress in the summer of 1964 and added to his programs in 1965. Echoing Johnson, Obama has been calling attention to inequality as the "defining challenge of our time" but he has not demonstrated the legislative or political skills that made LBJ such an effective leader on Capitol Hill.
Meanwhile, Republicans say Obama's initiatives are excessive and represent too much of a intrusion by the federal government into national life. GOP leaders say the problems of Obama's big-government approach are illustrated by the disastrous rollout of his Affordable Care Act.
All in all, Obama faces an uphill climb. A Gallup daily tracking poll indicates that only 40 percent of Americans approve of the job he is doing.