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Poverty has gotten hard to ignore, try as the president has. The nation's poverty rate has risen from 12.5 percent in 2007 to 15.1 percent in 2010, the most recent year for which data is available. The 2010 rate is the highest since 1993.
Republicans are even bringing up poverty, because of a longstanding concern for the poor that began two weeks ago, no doubt after criticism of Obama about poverty did well in focus groups.
Several commentators have chided the president for not raising his voice about poverty. In May, in the online magazine the Grio, former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert lamented that "Barack Obama can barely bring himself to say the word 'poor.'"
Peter Edelman, a Georgetown law professor who has fought for decades against poverty, wrote in his recent book So Rich, So Poor of his disappointment that Obama "seldom said the 'p' word." Edelman added that the president's "emphasis on the middle class with infrequent references to those at the bottom dismayed me."
On the Nation blog, writer Greg Kaufmann began an effort last month to "help push the issue of poverty into the mainstream political debate." In his Talk About Poverty series, Kaufmann's collecting questions on poverty from activists that they'd like to pose to Obama or Mitt Romney. He promises to "hound the presidential campaigns" for answers. "The only way we will possibly get the candidates—and Washington—to talk about poverty is if we insist that they talk about poverty," Kaufmann writes.
Kaufmann's effort is laudable, and I'm in sympathy with it. I have in fact been part of the chorus criticizing the president's reticence. "The president is a gifted speaker," I wrote in June. "When it comes to poverty, silence is one of his special skills."
But to play devil's advocate, and question my own view:
I don't feel that Obama's silence on poverty betrays a lack of concern. It's a simple political calculation. Winning in November depends on winning over white, middle-class, politically moderate voters.
I'd like to believe that a president could speak movingly enough about poverty to touch the empathy in such voters. I want to feel that such voters will appreciate a leader who appeals to their compassion. I'd like to believe that voters aren't as motivated by self-interest as party leaders assume they are. And that they certainly wouldn't hold it against a president if he pledged to work tirelessly to end the acute pain of concentrated poverty, even if the vast majority of those suffering because of it are African-American.
But is this wishful thinking?