President Obama's Great Society

By Joan Walsh, Salon - January 6, 2013

It was 48 years ago this weekend, Jan. 4 to be precise, that President Lyndon Johnson outlined his vision of “the Great Society” in his 1965 State of the Union address. Although lots of programs remain, his signature effort, and the one that remains strongest and by far the most popular, was the 1965 Social Security Act that created Medicare and Medicaid and expanded Social Security benefits. Outside of the fancy hotels and think-tank offices where cosseted Beltway deficit scolds and shiny “Fix the Debt” flacks convene, those programs are wildly popular, to this day.

There was genius behind the way both were created. First, in a country with a particular fear of slackers and moochers, the proverbial “free-riders,” they were tied to your work history, with “payroll taxes” that at least partly helped fund your eventual benefits. They’ve come to be called “entitlements,” a term the programs’ would-be “reformers” use to make recipients sound like greedy entitled geezers, because you’re entitled to them: You paid for them (or for part of them). Second, they went to a group we can all empathize with: senior citizens, whether because we have elderly parents or grandparents, or because we’ll eventually be old ourselves (we hope). Finally, they were universal programs that avoided “means testing,” because first Franklin Delano Roosevelt and then Johnson knew that programs that only went to the poor tended to be unpopular, poorly funded and politically vulnerable.

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