Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Obama should ignore 'class warfare' gibes

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
July 9, 2012 -- Updated 1411 GMT (2211 HKT)
President Barack Obama arrives at a campaign event at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh on July 5.
President Barack Obama arrives at a campaign event at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh on July 5.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama reportedly asked historians for defense vs. 'class warfare' attacks
  • Zelizer: There's no way for president to avoid conflict over the issue of inequality
  • Two Democratic presidents -- FDR and LBJ -- found different ways to raise the issue, he says
  • Zelizer: Today's economic stagnation increases the difficulty of addressing inequality

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and of the new book "Governing America."

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- During a meeting with historians in 2011, Politico reported, President Obama said: "What you could do for me is to help me find a way to discuss the issue of inequality in our society without being accused of class warfare." For Obama, this is not an esoteric question. Rather, this is a challenge that will be integral to his campaign and, if he is re-elected, to his second term as president.

Many Democrats have argued that Obama should have tackled this issue from his first day in the White House. But this is an issue the president didn't think he had the political capital to address. He has also continually feared that touching on inequality would open him up to Republican attacks of being left of center.

Obama's question to the historians has no easy answer. When Democratic presidents have tackled issues of inequality, they have usually come under intense attack. That is the cost of trying to address this problem through government. (Republicans argue this is best left to the marketplace.) The key to success has been how strong the Democrats' responses to the critics have been.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Two Democratic presidents who tackled the problem of inequality in the 20th century in very different times were Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

In 1932, FDR took office at the height of the Great Depression, with 25% of the workforce unemployed. He argued that the federal government would have to help take care of those who were suffering.

Obama: Extend Bush-era tax cuts
Romney: Jobs report a 'kick in the gut'
Israel: Law a victory for middle class

FDR promoted policies that aimed to provide greater economic security to working and middle-class Americans. Many of his key policies -- such as public works, Social Security, and the right to join a union -- aimed to make certain that the bottom did not fall out for those who were not rich and that average Americans had a strong foundation to climb up the income ladder once the Depression ended.

The business community responded predictably. While some leaders in the corporate world accepted the need for a New Deal, many others did not. The American Liberty League, an organization founded by business leaders in 1934, attacked FDR for trying to stoke class conflict and dividing Americans for his own political objectives. Following his combative State of the Union message in January 1936, when Roosevelt declared that his administration had "earned the hatred of entrenched greed," the American Liberty League denounced his effort to pit "class against class."

Roosevelt didn't run away. He insisted that the government had a duty to strengthen those who were disadvantaged. He also embraced the argument that if middle-class Americans prospered, they would spend money in consumer markets, which would in turn help the whole economy.

Finally, at some moments he argued that the nation suffered when the wealthy accumulated excessive economic and political power. In a 1936 campaign speech, FDR said: "We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace -- business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. ... Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me -- and I welcome their hatred."

Lyndon Johnson was more timid in certain respects. Johnson rarely spoke about the obligations of the rich, nor did he push for any kinds of tax increases until later in his presidency.

But he was willing to deal with the suffering of those who were not sharing in the prosperity of the era. He argued that a nation as great as the United States could not simply let inequality persist.

The centerpiece of his earlier years was the War on Poverty. In his State of the Union address in January 1964, Johnson said: "Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope -- some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity. This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. ... The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it."

Republicans did not sit by quietly. They attacked him for distributing funds to groups they called radical organizations and spending government money on urban populations. In 1964, Republican candidate Barry Goldwater said the War on Poverty was an attempt to "divide Americans." Johnson responded that his anti-poverty programs would in fact help the poor become self-sufficient and give them the tools to be good citizens.

It has become more difficult for Democratic presidents to discuss inequality for three reasons.

The first is the rise of the conservative movement, the mobilization of right-wing politicians, activists, and organizations who shifted political debate to the right. Certain questions, such as the role of government in diminishing inequality, became politically explosive.

The second reason is the particular state of the economy. During the 1930s, the state of the economic downturn was so severe that business and the wealthy had their backs to the wall, and progressive discussions about inequality received greater support. During the 1960s, the era of economic growth created the impression that the economic pie could continue to expand so that everyone could enjoy the rewards of the expanding GNP.

Currently, the economy is stagnant, yet conditions are not as severe as in the 1930s. As a result, discussions of inequality are still politically risky at the same time that they appear to require a zero-sum game where, to ease inequality, one side would have to lose in order for the other to gain.

Finally, the campaign system is flooded with private money, with both presidential candidates taking enormous contributions from wealthy interests who have little appetite for policies that would seriously diminish economic inequality, such as strengthening the progressive tax system. As a result, there is strong counter-pressure against any politician, Democrat or Republican, who is thinking of taking this step.

Regardless of these changes, a vibrant national discussion about inequality, with the president taking the lead, is essential. The 2012 campaign offers Obama an opportunity to put this problem on the national agenda.

The challenge for Obama is that there really is no way around the inevitable attacks, and there is no way to talk about economic inequality other than talking about it. Rather than looking for rhetorical tricks, Obama should instead focus on having the best arguments in response to the conservative attacks. This will require borrowing from Roosevelt a defense of how a vibrant middle class will be crucial to revitalizing America's economic position in the world, and from Johnson an argument that the ethical obligation to help the poorest is incumbent on our democracy.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1928 GMT (0328 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT