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7 The Logos of the Great Society and the War on Poverty: Prioritizing Social Needs While Reducing Overall Government Spending

7 The Logos of the Great Society and the War on Poverty: Prioritizing Social Needs While Reducing Overall Government Spending

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policy consensus, in part because of the scope of Democratic majorities in Congress.40 While we will see similar rhetoric of efficiency in

Clinton’s and Obama’s rhetoric, the context is a very different one,

where Clinton’s and Obama’s rhetoric is deferential to and apologetic

toward specifically conservative concerns with limited government,

rather than the universal value which transcends political ideology of

avoiding wasteful expenditures. But they demonstrate that a president

who championed the extensive redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation and a powerful and comprehensive social welfare safety

net guaranteed by government was far more concerned with restraining

government spending than how he has been depicted by conservative

Republicans who find the Great Society so threatening to their ideology

of limited government.

As we have seen, the Great Society represents—alongside Roosevelt’s

New Deal and Truman’s Fair Deal—the antithesis of the conservative

ideology of limited government in its concern for government provision of social services and recognition of social and economic rights.

Johnson’s efforts reflect a continuation of Roosevelt’s and Truman’s

promise to advance the human security of all Americans through government programs to realize their social and economic rights, and to

enable them to achieve their fullest potential and actualize positive liberty. However, despite greatly increasing government expenditures on

social programs, Johnson did not intend to establish a large, centralized government bureaucracy. In many of his speeches, he calls for safeguards to limit waste and maximize efficiency with regard to Medicare

in particular, but also to all the programs of the Great Society. He cautions that the federal government cannot provide the answer alone to

addressing educational inequalities and insufficiencies and the injustice

of poverty; it would need to do so through partnership with states and


The solution to these problems does not rest on a massive program in

Washington, nor can it rely solely on the strained resources of local authority.

They require us to create new concepts of cooperation, a creative federalism,

between the National Capital and the leaders of local communities.41

In his 1964 State of the Union address, Johnson emphasizes the same:

“Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization



and support. But this attack, to be effective, must also be organized at the

State and the local level and must be supported and directed by State and

local efforts.”42 As we discussed in Chaps. 1 and 2, these concerns with

state rights and local control have traditionally been conservative priorities, priorities which Richard Nixon, for example, articulated in his proposed healthcare reforms.

Although the funding for social programs stemmed largely from the

federal government, Johnson never depicts the Great Society and the

War on Poverty as government centric programs of aid.43 On the contrary, he depicts them as citizen movements necessitating extensive citizen participation taking place on a grassroots and local level, enabled but

not limited by the prerogatives of the federal government: “For the war

against poverty will not be won here in Washington. It must be won in the

field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse

to the White House.”44 Beyond this rhetoric, the policies themselves also

placed emphasis on local control and programming delivery. Although

Johnson’s rhetoric places great emphasis on communitarian solidarity, he

also defends the importance of citizens not becoming dependent on each

other if such dependency undermines dignity. In setting out his vision for

the War on Poverty, he states:

Our chief weapons in a more pinpointed attack will be better schools, and

better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities to help more Americans, especially young Americans, escape from

squalor and misery and unemployment roles where other citizens help to

carry them.45

It is particularly noteworthy that although Johnson increased spending

on social programming, his budget reflected concerns with lowering the

deficit and lowering taxes. In his 1964 State of the Union address, he

promised to cut the deficit in half and to offer the smallest budget since

1951. He also called for cuts in government employment, primarily in the

Defense Department and promised that:

by cutting back where cutting back seems to be wise, by insisting on a

dollar’s worth for a dollar spent, I am able to recommend in this reduced

budget the most Federal support in history for education, for health, for

retraining the unemployed, and for helping the economically and the physically handicapped.46



Thus, the Great Society and the War on Poverty do not reflect a massive increase either in taxes or in government expenditure overall. Instead,

they reflect reductions in other forms of government spending and large

increases in spending on social programs.47 Having discussed the ethos and

logos of the Great Society overall, we will now turn to analyze Johnson’s

defense of Medicare and Medicaid in particular.






Ethos and Pathos

With regard to Medicare and healthcare reform, Johnson depicts the ethos

of Medicare in relation to the principle of security that we saw is so dominant in his rhetoric and that we will see returning again in that of Clinton

and Obama. Personal security is the unifying moral principle and conceptual thread of each of the four presidents in their addresses on healthcare

reform and is a core principle of Truman’s Fair Deal and Johnson’s Great

Society. “Every older American must have the opportunity to live out his

life in security without the fear that serious illness will be accompanied by a

financial ruin,”48 Johnson states in one of his commentaries on the aims of

Medicare. He defends this ethos in relation to the pathos of anxiety generated by the insecurity caused by a lack of health insurance:

That is what Medicare is all about. What to do? How to live? Who will pay

the doctor? Who will pay the hospital? Who will pay for the medicine? Who

will pay the rent? Well, these are questions that older Americans that I have

known all of my life have dreaded to answer. Now Medicare is changing a

lot of that.49

Let us know turn specifically to Johnson’s defense of Medicare at the signing ceremony which established it.

The main rhetorical strategies that Johnson employs at the signing ceremony of Medicare and Medicaid are moralization and historical temporality. Notably absent are strategies of anticipatory and defensive rhetoric

(prolepsis) and appropriation of conservatism. His rhetoric emphasizes

the principle of equality of opportunity and a communitarian vision of

social solidarity. Its ethos is impassioned and explicit in its call for justice



and in the principle of security from poverty caused by excessive medical

costs and/or a lack of health insurance. On the passage of Medicare and

its implementation, he states:

No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern

medicine. No longer will illness crush and destroy the savings that they have

so carefully put away over a lifetime so that they might enjoy dignity in

their later years. No longer will young families see their own incomes, and

their own hopes, eaten away simply because they are carrying out their deep

moral obligations to their parents, to their uncles, and their aunts. And no

longer will this Nation refuse the hand of justice to those who have given

a lifetime of service and wisdom and labor to the progress of this progressive


In this way, Johnson’s healthcare reforms revise the social imaginary to

become one of greater equality, justice, and personal security. The keywords of justice and progress indicate the direction of the social imaginary

he envisions and articulate the moral order his healthcare reforms will

realize. They contrast fundamentally with the denials of dignity and of

hope that have so marred the lives of many economically disadvantaged

Americans until this time.

In addressing Truman, who joined Johnson at the signing ceremony,

Johnson exemplifies the strategy of moralization that is so prevalent in

his speeches and the heightened usage of emotionally stirring images and

words to convey an ethical message. Praising Truman for his many efforts

to create universal healthcare and for his concern with the disadvantaged

who lack it, Johnson says:

Many men can make many proposals. Many men can draft many laws. But

few have the piercing and humane eye which can see beyond the words to

the people that they touch. Few can see past the speeches and the political

battles to the doctor over there that is tending the infirm, and to the hospital

that is receiving those in anguish, or feel in their heart painful wrath at the

injustice which denies the miracle of healing to the old and to the poor.51

The pathos of empathy and compassion, and indignation in the face of

the suffering of the poor is fundamentally linked to the ethical imperative

of expanded healthcare provision described in this passage. Applying a

strategy of historical temporality,52 Johnson harks back to Truman’s first

efforts to create universal healthcare and quotes from Truman’s address

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