The war for the middle class in America

President Obama's State of the Union address focused on the middle class not reaping the full benefit of a rebounding economy, and his message not only was welcome, but long overdue, given how much work there is to do to restore this group to a level it hasn't enjoyed for 30 years.

President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address on January 20, 2015 in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC.
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President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address on January 20, 2015 in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC.

The president noted that while economic growth is picking up and unemployment is down, that improvement has not bolstered sufficiently the financial health of the average voter.

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Of course, the Republican response to raising taxes on the wealthy was that it would discourage investment in jobs. This ignores completely the historical fact of the middle class' 30-year slide.

In the Truman-Eisenhower-Kennedy-Johnson era, we had a middle class that was in top form, a strong organized labor force and one of the most progressive tax structures in our nation's history.

The days of one middle-class worker supporting a family are gone. But there are lessons we can learn from the model in which the breadwinner earned enough to buy a home, support a family, put kids through college, save for a rainy day and enjoy the peace of mind that comes with health care, a retirement plan and a two-week paid vacation. Is that genie too far out of the bottle? Do we dare dream of a return to such a middle class?

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Well, let's look at the alternative that has unfolded since the 1980s. Major tax reform under Ronald Reagan enabled the wealthy to thrive to the point that 20 percent of America holds 90 percent of the nation's wealth.

Meanwhile, the bottom 80 percent of the working population increasingly have lesser-skilled jobs in places such as restaurants, retail stores, and hospitals. These jobs often pay little more than minimum wage; include few, if any, benefits; and don't provide opportunities to develop skills or advance.

Even the economic elite are starting to worry that the system is not only inequitable but dangerous. Billionaires such as Warren Buffett and Nick Hanauer have publicly sounded that alarm.

Labor unions have less strength today in standing up for the middle class, so I'm glad to see the president taking action. But the conservative Congress is unlikely to play ball. Obama seems to be the only realist in Washington to see that this trend is not sustainable, and may be steering us down the road to becoming a "banana republic," where a wealthy elite lives behind iron gates in cloistered suburbs while the rest of the population scrambles just to make ends meet.

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It's no coincidence that government was more efficient when there was a secure middle class whose level of affluence gave them a personal stake in the survival of existing political and economic orders. The current environment is destined to create class warfare, and ultimately, the destabilization of this great nation.

The war to win back the middle class, therefore, is far more important to our future than any conflicts abroad. And now is the time to act.

So I applaud the president's efforts— increasing taxes for the ultra wealthy, which would be used for middle class tax credits and programs to help pay for college. Given the loopholes still available to those wealthy investors, and the efforts made to shield small businesses, homes and surviving spouses, the plan sounds reasonable to me.

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Then again, I'm not a politician whose job seems to be viewed these days as primarily to exaggerate the negative impact of opposing ideas. When I hear a critic state that "a $300-billion tax bill from Barack Obama is not the formula for this country to succeed," I am still waiting for a better idea than the way we've done things for the past three decades.

I don't think the president actually goes far enough. If investments in companies do not provide American citizens with the kind of middle class wages, benefits and advancement opportunities they used to enjoy, income from such investments should go back to being taxed at a steeply progressive rates that could rise as high as 70 to 90 percent. This would encourage wealthier Americans to invest in ways that help America as a whole. The alternative for them would be having much of their income taxed away so that government could then provide the assistance.

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Commentary by Marcus D. Pohlmann, a professor of political science at Rhodes College in Memphis. He has written extensively on race and poverty in the United States.