The phrase “a rising tide lifts all boats” expresses the idea that if the economy improves, every participant in the economy will be in an improved financial position.
The phrase originally comes from a speech made by President John F Kennedy. JFK used the phrase often; among other times, when pushing for a series of tax cuts, defending his European allies, and defending his plans to build a new dam. Generally, when he used the expression, JFK was referring to the need for all Americans to work together towards a shared future.
In fact, JFK did not originate the phrase; it was originally a fisherman’s expression. Kennedy acknowledged that, saying, “As they say on my Cape Cod, a rising tide lifts all the boats.” The phrase was the New England Council’s slogan.
Decades later, Ronald Reagan used the same phrase to advocate for what became known as his “trickle down” economic policies. Reagan’s view was that if the wealthiest Americans were given favorable tax policies, they would be in a position to hire more employees and benefit the overall economy.
Years later, resident Trump’s economic advisor, Larry Kudlow, used the phrase to talk about what he said were the benefits of the Trump economy:
It was a roaring success, inheriting a stagnant economy on the front end of recession, the program of tax cuts, historic roll back of onerous regulations that crippled small business, unleashing energy to become the world’s number one producer, and free, fair, and reciprocal trade deals to bolster manufacturing, agriculture, technology and other sectors.
The economy was rebuilt in three years. Unemployment fell to the lowest rate of 3.5 percent. Blue collars, African-Americans, Hispanics, women, all groups benefited enormously. Everyone was better off, a rising tide lifted all boats.
President Obama used the phrase too, but came under fire for it. Speaking to BET, a Lehigh university professor charged that the “rising tides” view didn’t fit with the reality of America’s built-in inequalities:
“The reality is that Black people have leaking boats, so a rising tide doesn’t lift all of our boats: unemployment is a leaking boat, the prison industrial complex is a leaking boat, public education a leaking boat,” James Peterson said. “So if you want to lift all boats, you’ve got to plug some of those holes. Imagine how radically we could address the unemployment situation if we focused on Black and brown men who are most likely to be unemployed.”
Later, President Biden called on the nation to return to the vision that JFK had set out:
“We’ve lost sight of what President Kennedy told us when he said, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” And when we lift each other up, we’re all lifted up. You know, and the corollary is true as well: When any one of us is held down, we’re all held back. More and more economic studies in recent years have proven this, but I don’t think you need economic studies to see the truth.”