One of the job's perks is that presidents almost always get the stage to themselves when they speak. So it was a measure of President Obama's increasing focus on race and poverty that he joined a panel discussion with three other speakers during a conference on those issues Tuesday at Georgetown University.
President Obama participates in the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty with moderator E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post (left), Harvard University professor Robert Putnam (second, right), and American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks at Georgetown University on May 12. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)Obama showed intensity not only in the form but the substance of his participation when he appeared with liberal political scientist Robert Putnam, author of the important new book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis; eclectic conservative thinker Arthur Brooks (president of the American Enterprise Institute); and moderator E."ŠJ. Dionne, a columnist and leading liberal analyst. Obama was pointed and provocative in challenging his fellow panelists' arguments. He was equally forceful in disputing each party's dominant narrative about the frustrating persistence of need decades after President Lyndon Johnson declared his "war on poverty." In the process, Obama showed how liberals and conservatives might converge around a new synthesis on poverty—and the obstacles impeding any such breakthrough.
Poverty today challenges America in its breadth and depth. After plummeting by about 7 million while the economy surged during Bill Clinton's two terms, the number of poor Americans has soared since 2000. Poverty grew by about 8 million during George W. Bush's presidency and has increased by another 6 million under Obama (though the number peaked in 2012 and steady job growth seems certain to shrink it further by 2016).
As worrisome is the spread of concentrated poverty. One recent analysis found that the number of high-poverty neighborhoods—defined as places where at least 30 percent of the population is poor—has tripled since 1970, while the number of people living in them has doubled. The turmoil and violence in Ferguson and Baltimore offers one measure of such isolation's price. Less visible is the headwind that concentrated poverty presents to all efforts to close the educational gaps that limit opportunities for young African-Americans and Hispanics. Today about three-fourths of black, and two-thirds of Hispanic, public-school students attend schools where most of their classmates qualify as poor or low-income. That complicates reform.
In his Georgetown appearance, Obama offered a nuanced and internally coherent analysis of poverty's persistence. He argued it could not be separated from broader economic trends that have widened inequality by channeling more of the economy's output to the very highest earners. Echoing a growing chorus of poverty scholars, he linked today's disparities to discrimination that prevented earlier generations of African-Americans from advancing economically and building family wealth. (Because of overt discrimination into the 1960s, Obama noted, blacks were long denied "access to the "¦ blue-collar job that paid well enough to be in the middle class and "¦ got you to the suburbs [so that] "¦ the next generation was suddenly office workers.") Above all, he lamented the rise of "class segregation" that has physically and politically isolated the affluent from other Americans and eroded support for public investment in areas such as education and transportation that can broaden opportunity.
Few Democrats would question any of that. But Obama courted more internal dissent when he also stressed the importance of individual accountability in creating pathways to opportunity. Obama's eyes flashed when Dionne asked him about African-American thinkers who criticized his 2013 commencement address at Morehouse College, in which he pressed more black men to engage in their children's lives. "I make no apologies for that," Obama told Dionne sharply. "And the reason is because I am a black man who grew up without a father and I know the cost that I paid for that."
In showing equal passion for collective and individual action to confront poverty, Obama has essentially reprised Bill Clinton's formulation of promoting "opportunity and responsibility." Fusing ideas previously seen as incompatible, Clinton as president advanced policies to "make work pay" for low-income families—but also signed welfare reform that required work. Clinton's greatest speech came in 1993 when he delivered an impromptu and impassioned call for greater inner-city personal responsibility from the pulpit where Martin Luther King preached his last sermon.
Obama encountered more pushback for his Morehouse speech from African-American commentators than Clinton did two decades before. That may partly reflect a greater sense of embattlement among African-Americans facing continuing economic and social inequities as well as public policies (like mass incarceration) that can compound them. But it also captures both parties' diminishing tolerance for ideas that challenge their prevailing views. Though Republican presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are far more comfortable discussing poverty than their party's last two nominees, they face a mirror-image problem in hardening conservative resistance to public investments that could lift the poor.
At Georgetown, Obama accurately observed that poverty demands "both"Š/"Šand" solutions that require more from government and individuals alike. An open question for 2016 is whether any of the potential nominees—from Bush and Rubio to Hillary Clinton—will challenge their parties to strike that difficult but indispensable balance.