But why should yesterday be any different? The president is a gifted speaker. When it comes to poverty, silence is one of his special skills.
When he assumed office in 2009 Obama developed an allergy to the word poverty, and the allergy has remained severe. The president has savvy advisers who've undoubtedly warned him to keep a healthy distance from the word and subject, especially because he's African-American.
In his new book, So Rich, So Poor, Georgetown law professor Peter Edelman notes that the president's stimulus legislation in 2009 aided the poor and near-poor significantly. "Yet even as he took positive action, President Obama made little use of the word 'poverty,'" writes Edelman, who was a top adviser to Senator Robert F. Kennedy in the 1960s and has worked to combat poverty in various roles ever since. "I was disappointed that he seldom said the 'p' word, and his emphasis on the middle class with infrequent references to those at the bottom dismayed me. Our president stands in the bully pulpit, and more than anyone, he has the power to educate and lead us toward the full inclusion of every single individual in our national community . . . . The unwillingness of our national leadership to engage the nation in a straightforward discussion of American poverty is corrosive."
Lyndon Johnson spoke passionately about the plight of the poor in his campaign for president in 1964, and was elected in a landslide over Senator Barry Goldwater. His campaign rhetoric helped put poverty on the nation's agenda, paving the way for legislation that began the War on Poverty. And those War on Poverty programs helped reduce American poverty from 19 percent in 1964 to 11 percent by 1973. But after Johnson, Democratic presidents developed the allergy now afflicting Obama.
So it wasn't really surprising that in his speech yesterday in Ohio, the president focused on the struggles of the middle class with gas prices, mortgages, retirement savings, and college tuition bills, as opposed to talking about the growing number of children whose mothers have no car, house, savings, or hope of a tuition bill, and who are lining up at food pantries because they've sold their food stamps to pay their rent.
Yes, life is hard today for many in the middle class. But as the saying goes, when the country catches a cold, the poor get pneumonia. It'd be nice if the president would at least acknowledge the special hardship of the poor.
In 2000, 11 percent of Americans were poor; as of 2010, that had risen to 15 percent—the highest poverty rate in the U.S. since 1993. Poverty continues to be disproportionately a minority affliction: 10 percent of whites are poor, compared with 27 percent of blacks and Hispanics. Twenty-two percent of American children are poor, including 38 percent of black children and 35 percent of Hispanic children.
Even those stunning statistics understate the problem that the president doesn't talk about. The poverty line for a family of four is $23,050. But almost 20 percent of all nonelderly households with children living in poverty are living in "extreme poverty"—they have incomes of $2 or less, per person, per day, aside from their food stamps. Between 1996 and 2011, the number of such households more than doubled, a report by the National Poverty Center shows. The growth in extreme poverty was 66 percent for white households, 82 percent for Hispanic households—and 125 percent for African-American households. Some such families live a five-minute drive west of the president's home in Kenwood.
"I like to believe that if more people knew how many people have incomes so low . . . there would be more of an outcry," Edelman writes in his book. "The first step is public awareness."
But maybe Obama's advisers are right to urge him to avoid this subject. Though the poor are a significant and expanding segment of voters, they still can be safely ignored. They obviously can't afford to make campaign contributions, and most will vote for Obama even if he remains mute about them. Were Obama to betray any sympathy for the poor, and were he to highlight the particular problem of poverty for African-Americans, Republican strategists would be thrilled. Super PACs would brand him the "food stamp president" again, or make some other not-so-veiled racial attack.
A recent study by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a doctoral candidate in economics at Harvard, indicates that racial animus cost Obama three to five percentage points of the popular vote in 2008. "In other words, racial prejudice gave John McCain the equivalent of a home-state advantage nationally," Stephens-Davidowitz wrote in the New York Times Sunday. The percentage of votes Obama gained because of his race was relatively minor. "The vast majority of voters for whom Mr. Obama’s race was a positive were liberal, habitual voters who would have voted for any Democratic presidential candidate," Stephens-Davidowitz wrote. Increased support and turnout by African-Americans was worth only about one percentage point for Obama.
Given that the election is likely to be close, "Race could very well prove decisive against Mr. Obama in 2012," Stephens-Davidowitz observed. "In 2008, Mr. Obama rode an unusually strong tail wind. The economy was collapsing. The Iraq war was unpopular. Republicans took most of the blame. He was able to overcome the major obstacle of continuing racial prejudice in the United States. In 2012, the tail wind is gone; the obstacle likely remains."
So it wouldn't be prudent for the president to pay special attention to poverty and racial inequality, even if the circumstances of the poor and of minorities call for it. The timing just isn't right.
And for nearly 50 years, it hasn't been.