Obama Talks Poverty in Inaugural Speech

January 22, 2013

Some months ago, Greg Kaufmann, The Nation‘s fine poverty columnist, launched a Twitter campaign to interject poverty into the Presidential debates.

Not much success there, as I noted at the time. But the campaign morphed. And of late, some tweets have looked forward to the inaugural address.

The President did indeed talk poverty yesterday. And I think he did it very well.

On the one hand, the speech had a framework and language designed to unify us as a people supportive of a progressive agenda — or if you prefer, to bring us over to “his side,” as Wonkblogger Ezra Klein says.

On the other hand, it drew a bright, white line for the policy battles ahead, with only the subtlest hints of the great divide between the Democratic and Republican leaderships.

Essentially, the President co-opted the right wing’s claim to grounding in the “self-evident” truths of the Declaration of Independence — particularly, the “inalienable rights” to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

These, as you know, have been used to justify minimal government — and minimal taxes — based on the original, inspired intent of our Founding Fathers.

The President instead defined the truths as the basis for an evolving process of expanded understanding and enlightened collective decisions.

Thus, we “learned” that we would have to make ourselves anew, as a country without slavery, to remain true to the “principles of equality and liberty.”

And “[t]ogether, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.”

This, his speech implied, is a done deal, leaving only issues of how we can best do this. “For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.”

Looking back and forward, the equality in the Declaration’s creed becomes more than the anti-slavery, equal protection and voting rights guarantees of the post-Civil War amendments.

“We understand,” the President said hopefully, “that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it” — which, as I understand it, implies that acute income inequality is inconsistent with our creed.

More clearly, equality implies opportunities for everyone to “find independence [note that word] and pride in their work” — and wages sufficient to “liberate [and this one] families from the brink of hardship.”

It implies opportunities for “a little girl born into the bleakest poverty” to have “the same chance to succeed as anybody else.”

Which, we’re to understand, will happen only if we collectively, through our government, ensure that she’s not denied the chance by the impacts of poverty — hunger, homelessness, meager early developmental experiences, lousy and/or inappropriate public education, etc.

The speech goes further in gathering us into a consensus on the value of safety net programs.

“We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm.”

We, in other words, know better than those who attribute poverty to failures of personal responsibility — and contend that safety net programs sap the will to overcome them.

And now the bright, white line — with a tacit parry and thrust to right-wing Republicans, including the right-wing convert Obama recently defeated.

“The commitments we make to each other — through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security — these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”

Some perhaps may wish that the President had laid out a more specific anti-poverty agenda.

But I think he talked poverty in a more important way — by rooting policies to address it in our history and core values we share.