(The Root) — It is long past time for Barack Obama to launch a rhetorical and public policy offensive, one that outlines economic priorities to promote job growth and end poverty. In 1941 President Franklin Roosevelt outlined the "four freedoms" that all Americans had the right to enjoy. Freedoms of speech and religion were combined with freedom from want and fear as the sacred rights of all citizens.
Roosevelt's "four freedoms" still hold true today, although contemporary politicians and even many citizens have forgotten the tough lessons that came out of the Great Depression and World War II. The combined crises spurred the nation to enact Social Security and other New Deal reforms that Tea Party Republicans seek to eviscerate from our national policy and our collective memories.
Republican assaults on our poorest and most vulnerable citizens, many of whom are African American and Hispanic, are no accident. Narratives dividing the indigent into groups of "deserving" versus "undeserving" poor have always thwarted anti-poverty efforts. In the 21st century, millions of white citizens now represent the face of poverty. Attacks on the social safety net, although disproportionately impacting blacks and browns, also harm the prospects of white Americans.
As president of the world's most enduring and powerful democracy, Obama has the obligation to forcefully explain to the American people why food stamps and health care fit into a larger vision of national renewal and democratic progress.
President Obama's efforts to right America's economic ship over the past five years have been manifested primarily through the passage of the stimulus bill and the Affordable Care Act, both of which came about during his first term. Obama's economic agenda and dreams of further stimulus have been quashed by a Republican congressional majority that rode to power after the 2010 midterm elections through a vociferous and at times race-baiting opposition to Obamacare.
Obama's largely defensive posture since has been shaped by these circumstances, which have grown worse since his 2012 re-election. The Republican Party's willingness, under the leadership of its Tea Party wing, to necessitate the government shutdown, to refuse to raise the debt ceiling, to defund Obamacare and to proudly trumpet the negative effects of ongoing sequestration has virtually crippled economic growth. Republican intransigence has placed Obama in the counterproductive position of having to spend political capital fighting battles, such as health care, that were already won.
The president's own strategic mistakes have contributed to this stalemate. Obama's failure to let the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of 2012 stripped him of any negotiating leverage with his congressional opponents and simultaneously denied the government tax revenues that could be used to fund vital social programs.
In addition to these challenges, Obama's inability to offer up bold, ambitious and big ideas to tackle America's ongoing fiscal crisis represents a failure of both leadership and imagination.
The Great Recession's negative impact continues to affect millions of Americans who are caught in the grip of poverty, economic insecurity, homelessness and unemployment. African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately affected by poverty and unemployment, but millions of whites are also struggling to survive in the "new normal" that sees wealth and economic opportunity distributed exclusively to the top 1 percent. Under Obama's stewardship, economic elites have enjoyed unprecedented prosperity, record Wall Street profits and relatively low taxes.
Economic inequality in contemporary America threatens the future of our democracy in a manner that calls for the kind of bold and far-reaching political action that characterized the New Deal and Great Society eras. Both Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson proposed outsized solutions that matched the scale of unprecedented fiscal challenges. Their plans were not perfect, and they sometimes stumbled and even failed, but their efforts rewrote the course of American history. They dreamed of the impossible, and as a result the New Deal achieved Social Security, labor and infrastructure reforms that transformed America. The Great Society featured immigration reform, Medicare and a war on poverty.
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.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.