President Lyndon B. Johnson proposed a utopian new vision for the United States under a vastly expanded federal government, which he dubbed the Great Society, on this day in history, Jan. 4, 1965.
“We seek to establish a harmony between man and society, which will allow each of us to enlarge the meaning of his life and all of us to elevate the quality of our civilization. This is the search that we begin tonight,” the president declared to the nation in his State of the Union address.
It was the first televised State of the Union, delivered in primetime directly to the American people, not just to both chambers of Congress as the Constitution requires.
“The Great Society asks not how much, but how good; not only how to create wealth but how to use it; not only how fast we are going, but where we are headed,” the president added, while imploring all Americans to action.
The Great Society “will not be the gift of government or the creation of presidents,” he also said.
Johnson’s vision offered a helping hand to Americans most in need, proponents of the Great Society have argued over the years.
His vision failed dramatically by any empirical measure and succeeded only in expanding the size and inefficiency of the federal bureaucracy and in institutionalizing generational poverty, its critics have noted.
Johnson assumed the Oval Office following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963.
LBJ was elected to the office a year later, soundly defeating challenger and Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater (486 to 52 votes in the electoral college), just nine weeks before the State of the Union.
He used his overwhelming victory as a mandate in the State of the Union to defend the need for enhanced U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and to propose the federal government as an answer to a vast array of human ills and societal problems.
“We are [in Vietnam] first,” he said, “because a friendly nation has asked us for help against the communist aggression … To ignore aggression now would only increase the danger of a much larger war,” he added.
He then issued nine direct proposals, the foundation of the Great Society, to tackle everything from education and crime to the environment and urban renewal.
His challenges included more obtuse objectives, too.
“I propose that we make an all-out campaign against waste and inefficiency,” Johnson said in announcing his federal government wish list.
Johnson introduced the term “Great Society” on the campaign trail in 1964, a phrase coined by speechwriter Richard N. Goodwin.
His 1965 State of the Union was followed by an intense flurry of legislative activity from Democrats on Capitol Hill, who were in the midst of a 26-year period of controlling both chambers of Congress (1955-81).
“The 1965 State of the Union address heralded the creation of Medicare/Medicaid, Head Start, the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the White House Conference on Natural Beauty,” writes History.com.
“Johnson also signed the National Foundation of the Arts and Humanities Act, out of which emerged the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.”
The Great Society was, at its core, an effort to attack poverty in America and the challenges to education, health and opportunity that come with it.
Johnson had introduced the “war on poverty” in his State of the Union a year earlier.
In this central goal — to reduce or even eliminate poverty — the Great Society has been a boondoggle by any empirical measure.
“The War on Poverty was destined to be one of the great failures of 20-century liberalism,” said historian and Rice University professor Allen J. Matusow, according to the Foundation for Economic Freedom.
“Those who most directly benefited,” he continued, “were the middle-class doctors, teachers, social workers, builders and bankers who provided federally subsidized goods and services of sometimes suspect value.”
The foundation added, citing poverty researcher Michael D. Tanner of the Cato Institute: “Throwing money at the problem has neither reduced poverty nor made the poor self-sufficient. Instead, government programs have torn at the social fabric of the country and been a significant factor in increasing out-of-wedlock births with all of their attendant problems.”
It continued, “Most tragically of all, the pathologies they engender have been passed on from parent to child, from generation to generation.”
The quality of public education in America, meanwhile, has declined across all demographics and sectors of society since the 1960s, while the gap between the educational achievement of Black and White children is greater than ever, according to numerous educational studies.
The Great Society has succeeded in turning the federal government into an insatiable leviathan.
The federal budget ballooned from $118.2 billion, when Johnson came to office in 1963, to $195.6 billion when he left in 1969, according to the American Presidency Project at University of California Santa Barbara. That’s an increase of 65.5%.
The federal budget last year was $6 trillion with a $1.8 trillion deficit, according to the same report.
“The hopes and promises articulated by Johnson were grandiose, and inevitably raised expectations (bringing an end to poverty and racism for example) that no president could realistically hope to achieve,” George Washington University historian and professor of political management Matthew Dallek wrote in 2015.
“Though many of Johnson’s programs remain in place today,” writes History.com, “his legacy of a Great Society has been largely overshadowed by his decision to involve greater numbers of American soldiers in the controversial Vietnam War.”