LBJ's 'War on Poverty' and the perils of inflated political rhetoric

Setting a low bar has its benefits

LBJ
(Image credit: (Bettmann/CORBIS))

Fifty years ago this week, Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty. Though some are tempted to look back with nostalgia on that rallying cry and the resulting Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 — and even to treat it as a blueprint for a populist Democratic president of the future — Johnson’s decision to propose a rhetorical declaration of war deserves to be treated as a cautionary tale.

The powers of the presidency are remarkably lopsided. In foreign policy, the president is the commander-in-chief in charge of the most powerful military in the world and rarely challenged by Congress when he chooses to send those forces into battle. Since the start of the war on terror, these powers have expanded still further, to include the authorization of torture for terrorism suspects, widespread domestic surveillance, and even the selective murder of American citizens without trial.

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