WASHINGTON — Speaking in an unusual forum for a president of the United States, Barack Obama told an audience at Georgetown University that entrenched economic want in the U.S. is a pressing problem brought more starkly to light by the recent unrest over policing in communities of color.
“I think that we are at a moment, in part because of what's happened in Baltimore and Ferguson,” the president said, referring to the marches, protests and sporadic riots that broke out in the wake of the police killings of two African-American men: Freddie Gray and Michael Brown. “There’s a growing a awareness of inequality — where it may be possible — to refocus [our] attention and bridge some of the gaps and the ideological divides.”
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The remarks came as the president participated in a panel on Overcoming Poverty, which took place during the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit, a three-day event that featured academics, faith leaders, and, in a rare moment, the American president.
The freewheeling, one-hour discussion, moderated by E.J. Dionne of the Brookings Institution, featured Obama, Arthur Brooks, president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and Harvard University sociology professor Robert Putnam.
Putnam said the country has changed for the better since the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, when Americans were discouraged from being concerned about fellow citizens. And Brooks said that as a conservative, he counsels Republicans on Capitol Hill “not to believe that just because people are on public assistance, that they want to be,” adding that it was time for conservatives to “declare peace on the social safety net.”
All three men said that people of faith can have an important seat at the table as the country searches for a way to combat economic inequality and help to uplift the poor.
As he took the first question from Dionne, the president said the country must move beyond the typical liberal-conservative debate over the causes of and cures for poverty, in which, “the stereotype is — folks on left want to pour more money into social programs and don't care about [the role of] culture; parenting and family structures,” while on the right, “you have wholehearted free market capitalists — reading Ayn Rand and thinking everyone [who is poor] are moochers.”
“The truth is more complicated, Obama said. “There are those on the conservative spectrum who deeply care about the poor — and they exhibit that through their churches and charities, but who are suspicious of what government can do; while on left — [there are those who] are in the trenches and who see how important family structures are, and recognize that [strong families] can make a difference in helping young people succeed. If coming out of this conversation we have a ‘both/and’ conversation rather than an ‘either/or’ conversation, we will make progress.”
The president lamented the fact that widening income inequality has led to the isolation of those who are struggling.
“Elites in a very mobile, globalized world are able to live together, away from folks who are not as wealthy,” Obama said, adding that as a result, the well off, “feel less of a commitment to making those investments” in communities that are struggling. The president drew a connection to the country’s racial history, saying that, “what used to be racial segregation is now class segregation,” where the affluent can say, “I don't know any poor people. I don't know people who can’t paying their bills,” and therefore oppose increased spending on government programs that help the needy.
And Obama said that as a result of this increasing isolation, the poor are too often demonized for their suffering, while the rich find themselves being blamed for the suffering of others.
“Who are you mad at if you’re struggling?” the president asked. “Over the past 40 years, you’ve got folks who are mad at folks at the top or at folks at the bottom,” adding that “over the last 40 years,” among conservatives, “an effort to suggest that the poor are sponges; leeches, don’t want to work or are under-serving got traction.”
The president even took a swipe at Fox News, saying that the conservative network offers viewers “a constant menu” of negative images of the poor. The network’s programmers “will go out and find folks who make me mad,” Obama said to laughs from the audience, implying that the network goes out of its way to put people on the air who project the message: “I don’t want to work. I just want a free ‘Obama phone.’ That becomes an entire narrative. Rarely do you hear an interview with a waitress doing everything right and can’t pay her bills.”
Asked by E.J. Dionne to respond to criticisms that he too has demonized those who suffer from discrimination, namely African-American men, the president vigorously defended “giving a different message to young men at a Morehouse commencement than young women at a Barnard commencement.”
“I am a black man who grew up without a father,” Obama said. “I know the cost I paid for that, but I broke cycle and as a consequence, I think my daughters are better off. For me to have that conversation [with young men of color] doesn't negate my conversation about early childhood education, job training, infrastructure … we are very hard at issues of criminal justice reform, but I’ve got a boy who says, ‘How did you get over being mad at your dad? I have a dad who beat my mom and left the state to avoid paying child support. I want to love my dad but I don't know how to do that.' I’m not going to have a conversation with him about macroeconomics. I’m going to have a conversation about how I tried to understand what my father went through, and his difficulties and his relationships with his children. I don't apologize for that conversation.”
The forum produced rare cross-ideological agreement, at least on the fact that eradicating poverty must be a national priority.
“The devil is in the details,” however, the president said. “Talk to any GOP friend. They say they care about the poor. … But when it comes to establishing the budgets, making choices, that's where it breaks down.”
But the president predicted that, even given the big ideological divides in the country, the economic hardships spreading across the middle classes and those struggling to get into the middle class could produce a political consensus on government doing more to help those who are struggling.
“I actually think that there will come a time when political pressure leads to a shift,” he said. “More and more families — not just inner city, African American families — more and more middle class or working class folks are feeling pinched and squeezed.”
The president closed his remarks with praise for Pope Francis, calling him a “transformational” leader who has focused the world’s attention on the plight of the poor and saying he “can’t wait” to host the pontiff when he visits the U.S.
E.J. Dionne responded to that by concluding, “all events end better with a reference to Pope Francis.”