Recently, a man I respect very much, Bill Moyers, penned an article titled, “Invisible Americans Get the Silent Treatment.” In his article, he appears to be stunned that “for all his rhetorical skills,” President Obama “oddly…hasn’t made a single speech devoted to poverty since he moved into the White House.” Mr. Moyers points out that candidate Obama talked a great deal about poverty, even being “one of the few politicians who would talk about it.” Moyers bemoans the fact that Obama, as a candidate and author, talked about significant investment in anti-poverty programs that wouldn’t just temporarily ameliorate the symptoms of poverty, but would target education and training so that the poor could make permanent improvements in their life circumstances, while President Obama has not pushed for the “billions” he wanted spent on such programs. Moyers acknowledges the White House has explained the economic crisis required a diversion of attention and dollars from loftier goals to more immediate needs, but he still laments what he considers to be Obama’s neglect of the poor. I think Moyers is missing the most obvious explanation for Obama’s inability to attend to poverty, the very white, very racist Tea Party.
For an Obama supporter, election night 2008 was magical. The genuinely joyful crowds, large American flags waving everywhere, exuberant celebration in many households across the country. I was blessed at that time to be isolated from anyone who was horrified by Obama’s election, but I knew they were out there in large numbers. Racists, flagrant and closeted, were more than distraught. They were panicking. There were also the many conservatives, who don’t consider themselves racist, who were dismayed and fearful, just as they were when Clinton was elected. But it immediately became clearer than it was before that a hefty percentage of what passes for conservatism is simply reactionary to what they fear will be the extension of either rights or public/governmental help to racial minorities. So racism in their crowd, even if it’s latent or unconscious, is ever-present. Maybe they were feeling something similar to our horror watching Bush steal his first “election”, and then win his next.
But the illegal nature of Bush’s appointment to office wasn’t sufficient to rally a large number of Americans and get them organized for protests in cities nationwide, or to fill the Mall in Washington, D.C. with protestors. Given what a monstrosity his first term was, with unprovoked war, flagrant lies, unconstitutional attacks on our civil liberties, the widespread use of torture, and out-of-control deficit spending, one might expect that Bush’s reelection would have been sufficient to fill the Mall with protestors. Yet there was very little of that. In contrast, starting just months after Obama took office, conservatives and right wingers organized themselves for demonstrations in cities across the country, on April 15, 2009, followed by a semi-successful gathering in Washington, DC on September 12, 2009. (In fact, there were actually the beginnings of the Tea Party as early as February 2009). If it had been a movement that just fizzled out, perhaps there’d be nothing to talk about. But, instead, these people organized even further, brought mainstream Republicans straight over to their right-of-crazy positions, and managed to dominate the 2010 election. It was an unprecedented temper tantrum.
Obama no doubt expected opposition. But, did he plan for the American people to turn on him with this kind of virulence? Starting with high favorability numbers, his approval rating steadily dropped his first year until he had only an 8 point lead on the Tea Party, which should have been confined to the typical 32% of hardcore conservatives that always hate a Democratic president. Meanwhile, the Tea Party managed to gain higher favorability ratings than either the Democrats or Republicans by the end of 2009. By then, Americans who weren’t affiliated with the Tea Party were influenced by them, and had their own racial fears stoked. Coerced by the constant media attention to attend to the issues the Tea Party wanted to focus on, government spending (on those people) was on everyone’s mind. Never mind that Obama was spending less than the four previous Presidents, everyone was labeling him as a big spender. Never mind that he cut taxes for the middle class, people were saying he raised taxes on them. The Institute for Policy Integrity recently published a report showing that in U.S. newspapers alone, use of the term, “job killing regulations” has increased by 17,000%, no doubt most of it in Obama’s term. The mid-term election wiped away any upper hand Obama once had.
Obama was left with little political capital. Any plans he had to tackle poverty were waylaid. There was a dual dynamic going on. First, he had to deal with being labeled a tax-and-spend liberal facing the most obstructionist Congress in decades, so generating any new government spending for poverty was next to impossible. It’s a fantasy to believe that anything beyond fighting to maintain funding for existing programs was possible. But, the other issue is Obama’s race. The upsurge of racism apparent since the beginning of his Presidency has included efforts to paint Obama as a president who wanted to flood African Americans with government largesse, no matter how ridiculous the claim may be. Way too many Americans associate poverty with African Americans, despite the vastly higher number of white people in poverty. Forced to resist the accusations that he is “the Black President” and not the President of all Americans, Obama has had to distance himself from any policy that would appear to be minority-linked. It harms people in poverty (all of them), but nothing else was really possible politically. No doubt Obama has done this with his eye always on reelection, fully conscious that he cannot afford to alienate too many white Americans. And unfortunately, a huge number of white people, even those who voted for Obama and think they are not racist, are prone to be influenced by racial politics. It’s why Ronald Reagan launched his candidacy from Philadelphia, Mississippi and harped on “welfare queens.” It’s why Newt Gingrich tried to make Obama the food stamp president. And it is why Mitt Romney is going all out to make it seem like Obama is heavily in favor of welfare. It doesn’t just work with the conservative base. There are plenty of independents and centrists who unconsciously respond to these age-old tactics. As Rachel Maddow’s recent segment on “the White Vote” demonstrated, Romney will need to rely on the vote of white people to an unprecedented degree. No wonder that Romney-Ryan are employing these dog-whistle politics so heavily.
Any attempt Obama had made to address poverty amidst this toxic brew of racism and white fear would have only reinforced the crazy notion that he is the president of only African Americans and other minorities. It would have been self-defeating, both to him and to the policies proposed. Hopefully, should Obama win a second term, not have to worry so much about political capital, and face a less petulant Congress, he will pursue the poverty goals he originally spelled out as a candidate and author.
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.