On Tuesday, Georgetown University hosted President Barack Obama, the columnist E.J. Dionne, Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, and the political scientist Robert Putnam for a conversation on poverty in America. I found myself most attracted to Obama’s understanding of public policy and personal morality. Specifically, Dionne asked the president to address criticism of his Morehouse speech, as well as his general belief in the alloy of progressive policy and moral uplift.
Here is Dionne’s question:
Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote something back in 2013 about your talk about what needs to happen inside the African American community—I know you remember this: “Taking full measure of the Obama presidency thus far, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this White House has one way of addressing the social ills that afflict black people and particularly black youth, and another way of addressing everyone else. I would have a hard time imagining the President telling the women of Barnard that ‘there's no longer room for any excuses’—as though they were in the business of making them.”
I’d love you to address sort of the particular question about—maybe it is primarily about economics because we can’t do much about the other things through government policy, and also answer Ta-Nehisi’s critique, because I know you hear that a lot.
Here is the president’s response:
It’s true that if I’m giving a commencement at Morehouse that I will have a conversation with young black men about taking responsibility as fathers that I probably will not have with the women of Barnard. And I make no apologies for that. And the reason is, is because I am a black man who grew up without a father and I know the cost that I paid for that. And I also know that I have the capacity to break that cycle, and as a consequence, I think my daughters are better off. (Applause.)
And that is not something that—for me to have that conversation does not negate my conversation about the need for early childhood education, or the need for job training, or the need for greater investment in infrastructure, or jobs in low-income communities.
Later the president refers to this as the “both/and” approach—discussing both immorality in the black community and possible policy solutions to its dire straits.