There's something eminently straightforward about President Obama's State of the Union proposal to raise taxes on the richest Americans and boost income for the middle class. Robin Hood had the same idea, and the Republican Party has endlessly declared it "class warfare."

In a way, the attempt reflects Mr. Obama's hour of distress in having to deal with a Congress in GOP hands in both the House and Senate. He is striving now to change the national conversation from the stalled economy of the previous six years of his presidency to the encouraging signs of job and investment growth that are only now appearing.


His message is a retread of liberal Democratic efforts to place income inequality on the front burner of political debate that failed to gain traction in November's midterm congressional elections. Aware that the Republican majorities in each house of Congress will suffocate this old baby in its crib, Mr. Obama will press on with it to underscore the clinging GOP image of obstructionism onCapitol Hill.

While both sides may offer gestures of bipartisanship, the strengthened Republicans will roll out legislative initiatives to demonstrate that they mean to govern, and Mr. Obama will finally take his veto pen out of mothballs to show the lame duck is not yet irrelevant.

The likely outcome is a scrubbed-up resurrection of the old debate over activist vs. caretaker government. Mr. Obama and supportive Democrats will continue trying to even the economic scales through executive power, while the Republican opposition cries abuse of it by a stymied chief executive.

No matter how each wraps its package, the stereotype of the Democratic Party will be one of embracing government as an engine of social and economic change, the champion of the little guy and the working stiff. And the Republican Party, the champion of Wall Street and big business, will widely dismiss government as an intruder into the marketplace.

If anything, the latest Obama proposals to raise capital gains taxes and provide more help to the middle class through such things as free community college for qualified students provides an easy target for the opposition party in the argument waged since the birth of FDR's New Deal 80 years ago.

Its seeds can be traced back to the Gilded Age of what Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican turned Progressive, later called the "malefactors of great wealth" in the industrial boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The resultant emergence of the organized labor movement hardened the partisan lines through the Great Depression, and they endured long afterward.

Through all that time, with the arguable exception of the World War II years, class warfare survived in the rhetoric of both parties. During the Cold War with the Soviet Union, Republicans seized on the anticommunism of the time to raise the banner.

But with the erosion of the labor movement's membership and political clout, and the revitalization of the Republican brand under Ronald Reagan, the Grand Old Party managed to soft-pedal the argument over class. Reagan Democrats in industrial strongholds like Michigan crossed over in the party line in droves.

In the 1990s, Democrat Bill Clinton was able to arrest that trend somewhat, but his vice president, Al Gore, was accused in 2000 by his running mate, Joseph Lieberman, of losing their race against George W. Bush and Dick Cheney by playing the class-warfare card. Lieberman later argued that the Democratic ticket lost because Mr. Gore campaigned on the slogan: "They're for the powerful, we're for the people."

In 2008, Mr. Obama didn't have to resort the that kind of hard class-warfare pitch to win election, though it did surface in 2012 when the conspicuously wealthy Mitt Romney invited the old debate by kissing off "the 47 percent of Americans" on the public dole he said wouldn't vote for him.

Now, Mr. Obama is playing the class card in the cause of combatting the huge income inequality that now exists during a time of a stock-market boom. It will probably take much more than a State of the Union focus to achieve that particular objective.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.