Fifty years ago this week, President Lyndon B. Johnson aimed to make history as the most ambitious and effective social engineer ever to occupy the Oval Office. In a bold call to arms, he declared a War on Poverty as the centerpiece of his State of the Union address on Jan. 8, 1964.
It was less than seven weeks after President John F. Kennedy's assassination and Johnson, as Kennedy's successor, billed it as part of the martyred young president's legacy. But it went much further than anything Kennedy had proposed. "This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America," Johnson said. "Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it."
He got most of what he wanted from Congress, including the Economic Opportunity Act, which he sent to Capitol Hill March 16, 1964 and which he signed into law on Aug. 20, 1964. Johnson wasn't sure what would work, historians say, but he hoped the many ideas he was promoting would somehow do the job. His proposals included the creation of a Job Corps and other programs to provide work training and work-study options for the disadvantaged; funding for Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), a domestic Peace Corps; loans to facilitate hiring the unemployed; a Community Action Program to empower and encourage local communities and citizens to fight poverty with federal help; and the creation of an Office of Economic Opportunity to coordinate the whole anti-poverty campaign.
Beyond all this, he asked Congress for far-reaching civil-rights legislation; a big tax cut to stimulate the economy; and enough money "to build more homes, more schools, more libraries, and more hospitals than any single session of Congress in the history of our Republic. All this and more can and must be done. It can be done by this summer." His "Great Society" campaign also included more federal aid to education, housing, health care and food stamps for the poor.
This led in 1965 to the launching of Head Start to help low-income families provide their children with pre-school programs, the strengthening of legal services for the poor, and the creation of Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for low-income Americans After a period of initial acceptance, the country gradually turned against Johnson’s brand of social activism as too vast, complicated and ineffectual, leading to excessive federal meddling in society and too much dependency on the government. This political backlash helped to usher in the conservative era of less government that gained full force with President Ronald Reagan's election in 1980.
The history of the War on Poverty -- its initial popularity and the eventual public backlash against it -- provides many lessons for today. President Obama and the Democratic party are again talking about using government to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots and to restrict income inequality. Obama raised the ante when he called inequality the "defining challenge of our time," echoing Johnson’s breathtaking call to arms a half-century ago. And while Obama’s solutions are much more modest than Johnson's, the current president has proposed a variety of extensive anti-poverty programs that, taken together, represent a resurgence of LBJ’s government-oriented altruism, such as broadening Medicaid to poor adults without children, increasing the minimum wage, extending unemployment benefits and expanding early childhood programs to enhance young people's learning skills and give them more opportunities over the long run.
But while the instincts for federal activism may be similar, Obama and his team are more limited in what they can do than the Johnson administration was. The country has become deeply skeptical about the ability of the federal government to make huge changes efficiently and fairly. The ongoing rollout of Obama's health-care law has been so ridden with mistakes and lapses that it is likely to deepen that skepticism and undermine support for more large-scale federal initiatives.