The Perils for Obama of Not Talking About Poverty in America

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Back in 1980, on the campaign trail Ronald Reagan repeated an apocryphal story about an individual who personified the undeserving poor. There was a woman in Chicago he called a “welfare queen” who “had eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards” and “collected veterans’ benefits on four non-existent husbands.” He said her tax-free income was “over $150,000″. The tale became a motif indicting the failures of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society social programs. But when reporters scrutinized the case they could find only one woman in Chicago who had been convicted in 1977 of using two aliases to pick up welfare checks totaling about $8,000.

When Reagan contrasted what he called the “truly needy” and the “truly greedy,” and sometimes talked about “a welfare queen in designer jeans,” it marked a departure in trying to understand the causes and consequences of poverty in America. When members of his administration later proposed counting ketchup as a “vegetable side dish” to save money in the federal school lunch program they were forced to backtrack after facing public scorn.

Throughout the previous two decades the plight of the poor had been a major concern in American politics. In 1961, middle-class Americans were shocked when CBS aired Edward R. Murrow’s documentary Harvest of Shame on the day after Thanksgiving exposing the living conditions of migrant farm workers in rural Florida. The following year Michael Harrington published The Other America, about poverty in American, which caught the attention of President Kennedy. Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” followed, and alleviating poverty was the centerpiece of both Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s public work in their final years.

Reagan’s new attitude changed the focus from shaming the nation for failing the poor to breeding indifference, or worse, blaming the victims of poverty themselves. This revamped conservative ideology went a long way towards realigning the dominant culture’s interpretation of poverty as well as the government’s role (if any) in lessening its effects. But even Reagan couldn’t imagine how far his Republican progeny would take his “welfare queen” yarn.

By not speaking about the poor and poverty in America President Obama allows the Reagan era “welfare queen” construct to go unchallenged and, even worse, creates a vacuum that’s already being filled by right-wing pseudo-scholars. The Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector, (whose philosophy for decades now regarding the poor can be summed up with Ebenezer Scrooge’s line: “Are their no prisons?”), has produced a “study” proving how well off, even affluent, the poor in America really are.

Even in the heat of the 2008 presidential campaign when I wrote blog after blog in favor of Obama’s nomination I never believed he was going to be a “radical” president, or a “transformational” leader, and certainly not a “post-partisan” or, (even more absurdly), a “post-racial” president. But I did think he would be a forceful advocate for bedrock liberal-progressive values and policy prescriptions. It turns out he’s a forceful advocate, but not for what I thought. He’s a forceful advocate for a weird concept of “bipartisanship” that has never really existed in this country and certainly never existed when it came to moving the country forward in periods of progressive reform. In the 1930s and the 1960s the progressives won battles not by “reaching out” to Republicans, but by sidelining them and pealing off those moderates who would join what was a Democratic agenda. Obama has gotten it backwards — he’s forsaken his agenda for a Republican one, and then acts surprised when members of his progressive base bolt. Nowhere is this trend more apparent than with his avoidance of saying anything about the plight of the poor in America, even while their ranks grow at an alarming rate.

Instead of getting mad at the Republicans and their corporate buddies who threw the United States off a cliff during the Bush years he “reaches out” again and again seeking to work with them. In doing so he legitimizes their ideas about deficits and government “spending” and reinforces their interpretation of the causes of the Great Recession. And in the process he undermines his own narrative about where the blame should lie. His silence about the plight of the poor in America is just more collateral damage from his strategic decision he made sometime in 2009 to move rightward, away from his base and toward the same Republican politicians who crashed the economy. That ain’t much to run in 2012.

The recall elections in the state of Wisconsin show that with a Herculean effort activists of the Democratic base can mobilize to the point of pushing back against right-wing social engineering. But they did so with little help from the Obama Administration, either symbolically or concretely, and in the aggregate fewer Democratic voters made it to the polls than Republicans. The worker mobilization in Wisconsin might have benefited from a little encouragement from the nation’s top Democrat, but the president these days doesn’t want to ruffle the feathers of the extreme Right, and doing something “proactive” in behalf of those who are suffering under the sustained economic catastrophe might ruffle some feathers.

During the campaign of 2008 (seems like a thousand years ago) candidate Obama evoked the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. But King was a tireless advocate for the poor. In addition, one thing that MLK never would have done was to allow his movement to dissipate and disperse. Obama essentially threw away the mass mobilization of citizens in 2008 that got him elected in favor of a bizarre concept of “bipartisanship.” If one takes even a cursory look at the last few years of King’s life we see him broadening the civil rights movement in the South to include other regions, such as his high-stakes battle with Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago over housing issues that consumed a lot of his time throughout 1966. (Obama should know this history because Chicago is his adopted hometown and his Chief of Staff is Mayor Daley’s son.)

One of King’s goals was to keep the civil rights movement mobilized and not let it dissipate after the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Watts Riot showed there was plenty of work to be done outside the South. During King’s final years he was engulfed in the Poor People’s Campaign, again, to keep his movement rolling. King understood that you had to constantly pick new battles and fight new fights to keep moving forward and most importantly to keep your people mobilized. Obama seems to have missed completely this strategic lesson of Dr. King.

Did Obama really think he could “jump start” the economy by leaving millions of home “owners” to the tender mercies of Chase, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America? Did he really believe he could “stimulate” the economy with a largely Republican package of tax incentives when virtually every dollar of federal “stimulus” money was erased by draconian budget cuts at the state and local levels? Does he really think that “triggers” inside the debt ceiling “deal” are going to have a moderating influence on his nemeses among the Far Right?

Without a significant tax hike on the richest people in this country the $825 billion bailout of the big investment banks and insurance companies of September 2008 represents a massive transfer of wealth from working people to Wall Street and another hit against ordinary taxpayers. Where’s the fairness in that? Where’s Obama’s sense of outrage toward those who ransacked the middle class? Why doesn’t he feel any righteous anger toward those who promulgated the terrible policies during the Bush years that kicked the country to its knees economically?

Why is Obama so implacable and emotionless in the face of those who have done so much damage to the country he supposedly loves? That guy really must have ice water running through his veins. He simply takes in stride the onslaught that has so crippled the nation, destroyed the lives of millions of unemployed Americans who had no responsibility whatsoever in bringing about this sorry state affairs. He and other “leaders” sit on the sidelines while many of our most important public institutions that bind us together as a people are ruined or cut back to nothing including public schools, public health, public services, public parks, public safety.

In California if tax receipts don’t magically increase in the coming months (and there’s little evidence they will) there will be a set of “triggers” that further gut education at all levels in the state. California has already reduced the number of days children are in school and will reduce them even more after the budget-cut “triggers” are pulled. Just wait until the trillions of dollars worth of “triggers” are pulled at the federal level later this year. People are already suffering and our political representatives are apparently determined to make sure they suffer even more. “Trigger” is a good word to describe what’s going on because there’s certainly a gun pointed at the head of the working class and the poor.

The “Supreme Soviet” (or Super Committee, or Super Congress), with Senators Patty Murray of Washington, Max Baucus of Montana, and John Kerry of Massachusetts representing the Democratic side from the Senate, will be under so much pressure to cross over and help the Republicans gut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid that we’ll probably see the Medicare voucher system contained in Representative Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget the Republicans passed in the House become law through the back door. The out-of-touch millionaires from both parties on the “Super Committee” will stick it to the middle class again while receiving high praise from the Beltway press (and the support of the Obama Administration).

The “courageous” thing to do won’t be to raise taxes on the rich and corporations, but to slash programs that help working families get a leg up. Hence, Republican policies that produced the economic carnage in the first place will be followed by more Republican policies that shift the burden even more so onto the shoulders of working people. And in the process sensible Democratic policy proposals (like the “People’s Budget” from the Progressive Caucus in the House) will continue to be sidelined, ignored, and not even tried.

In Sacramento, the city council and the county board of supervisors have laid off police officers, sheriffs, firefighters, teachers, social workers, groundskeepers, etc. They’ve closed parks and shut down pools and mental health clinics and programs that help “at-risk” juveniles stay on the right track. Other areas of the Central Valley in California are becoming unhinged due to Grapes-of-Wrath levels of poverty and unemployment. The other day in Oakdale near Modesto a man attacked in her apartment a legally blind 62-year-old woman who is in ill health, tore her wedding rings off her fingers, stole her purse and valuables, and punched her in the face three times. I couldn’t help but think of that single violent act as symbolizing the culmination of thirty years of failed “conservative” fiscal and economic policies toward the most vulnerable in our society.

Joe PalermoThe rich people around here just ignore the economic hardship and savage budget cuts that eat away at the quality of life of the “community” to which they supposedly belong and seal themselves off in their gated communities. It’s strange that President Obama doesn’t show any indignation about our long slide into economic oblivion. He’s certainly not “fighting mad” about it. He draws a line in the sand, the Republicans cross it, then he steps back a hundred paces and draws another line in the sand.

Joseph Palermo

Published by the LA Progressive on August 11, 2011
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About Joseph Palermo

Joseph Palermo is Professor of History, California State University, Sacramento. Professor Palermo's most recent book is The Eighties (Pearson 2012). He has also written two other books: In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia, 2001); and Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson, 2008). Before earning a Master's degree and Doctorate in History from Cornell University, Professor Palermo completed Bachelor's degrees in Sociology and Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Master's degree in History from San Jose State University. His expertise includes the 1980s; political history; presidential politics and war powers; social movements of the 20th century; the 1960s; and the history of American foreign policy. Professor Palermo has also written articles for anthologies on the life of Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. in The Human Tradition in America Since 1945 (Scholarly Resources Press, 2003); and on the Watergate scandal in Watergate and the Resignation of Richard Nixon (CQ Press, 2004).