Obamacare Isn't Big Enough

The nation still needs transformative legislation to address poverty.

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It is time for President Obama to propose a combination of the New Deal and Great Society for the 21st century in place of grand bargains with Republicans that diminish our already shrinking social safety net, place the elderly in further jeopardy and mortgage the future of young schoolchildren to provide the wealthy with more tax breaks.  

Our nation needs a bold policy that outlines national priorities in jobs, education and health care for this century. This has long been overdue, and the delay is not simply the fault of Obama. Over the past 43 years, since the end of a quarter century of postwar economic prosperity, America's working and middle classes have been left behind. Obama is simply the latest in a string of presidents after LBJ who have studiously ignored, or ineffectively addressed, the poor.

Of course, the president can't do this alone. But his vocal leadership could help galvanize a broad coalition of elected officials, activists, civil rights leaders and citizens to continue a moral and political crusade for economic justice that contemporary America has largely abandoned.

Poverty and race combine to form the third rail in American politics, but it's only by confronting these issues that we can renew the dream of economic justice and racial equality that the March on Washington outlined.  

More than 70 years after FDR, the time is overdue for another American president to resume the heroic tradition of championing the now millions of Americans living beneath or just above the poverty line. Obama should forcefully acknowledge the growing epidemic of poverty in the nation. Yet he should also acknowledge that buried deep within the recesses of our own recent history is the capacity to confront economic inequality and injustice and, in the process, reimagine our past, present and future. 

Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published next year by Basic Books. Follow him on Twitter.

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