Tuesday was the closest most of America will ever get to a late-night dorm-room bull session with President Obama. The president appeared at a panel at Georgetown with political scientist Robert Putnam, conservative think-tank president Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, and liberal columnist E. J. Dionne to discuss poverty. The result was both a West Wing–like argument about the proper role of government, and a look at how the president sees American politics, society, and history as he enters what everyone agrees is his lame-duck phase. (Underscoring his lame-duckness, that same afternoon, the president got all of one Democrat to go along with his proposed trade deal.)
So faced with such a complex, fascinating record to draw from, what did many outlets do? Flatten Obama's remarks into a Fox News jab.
That's particularly ironic — and, frankly, kind of sad — because Obama's fuller, more complicated argument was in part a warning for liberals: that while government might be a useful solution to the problems of poverty, when Americans are confronted with actual people in suffering, simply retreating to politics isn't even close to enough.
In fairness, the president did call out Fox explicitly — in a passage that's interesting enough to quote:
There’s always been a strain in American politics where you’ve got the middle class, and the question has been, who are you mad at, if you’re struggling; if you’re working, but you don’t seem to be getting ahead. And over the last 40 years, sadly, I think there’s been an effort to either make folks mad at folks at the top, or to be mad at folks at the bottom. I think the effort to suggest that the poor are sponges, leaches, don’t want to work, are lazy, are undeserving, got traction.
And, look, it's still being propagated. I mean, I have to say that if you watch Fox News on a regular basis, it is a constant menu -- they will find folks who make me mad. I don’t know where they find them. (Laughter.) They’re like, I don’t want to work, I just want a free Obama phone -- (laughter) -- or whatever. And that becomes an entire narrative -- right? -- that gets worked up. And very rarely do you hear an interview of a waitress -- which is much more typical -- who’s raising a couple of kids and is doing everything right but still can’t pay the bills.
But in a panel in which President Obama was sitting side by side with an academic political scientist and, let's not forget, the president of one of America's leading conservative think tanks, was that really the most interesting thing that got said? Of course not.
In fact, some of Obama's very first remarks were about the dangers of the "filter bubble": the tendency people on both sides of the aisle have to consume media that suits their ideologies, and to substitute mocking the other side for actually considering its arguments. He began his speech with a complaint about how quickly liberals resort to Ayn Rand jokes to mock conservatives:
The stereotype is that you’ve got folks on the left who just want to pour more money into social programs, and don't care anything about culture or parenting or family structures, and that's one stereotype. And then you’ve got cold-hearted, free market, capitalist types who are reading Ayn Rand and -- (laughter) -- think everybody are moochers. And I think the truth is more complicated.
I think that there are those on the conservative spectrum who deeply care about the least of these, deeply care about the poor; exhibit that through their churches, through community groups, through philanthropic efforts, but are suspicious of what government can do.
The attack on Fox News, in fact, was only one prong of a two-pronged argument about why middle-class white Americans aren't as emotionally invested in the lives of poor white Americans as they used to be. The other prong was another type of filter bubble: residential segregation.
what used to be racial segregation now mirrors itself in class segregation and this great sorting that’s taking place. Now, that creates its own politics. Right? I mean, there’s some communities where I don’t know -- not only do I not know poor people, I don’t even know people who have trouble paying the bills at the end of the month. I just don’t know those people. And so there’s a less sense of investment in those children.
Part of this is some pretty standard sociology. Part of it is a strain of "can't we all just get along?" optimism about the power of rational political discourse that's been part of Obama's shtick since the 2004 Democratic National Convention. But there's also an argument here about when it's necessary to talk about poverty as a matter of politics, and when it's necessary to talk about it as a matter of people.
This argument came out most clearly when Obama was asked to respond to a critique made by Ta-Nehisi Coates (and, for that matter, Vox's own Jenée Desmond-Harris) about the moralizing language the president sometimes uses when talking to black audiences — and in particular, talking to young black men.
Earlier in the panel, Obama himself had pointed out that the "frayed" families and social disadvantages facing inner-city African Americans today were the result of economic exclusion and discrimination in the past. So, Dionne asked, how could he go to a room full of Morehouse students and lecture them on personal responsibility, as if their problems were their fault?
Here's what Obama said in reply:
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.
So I’ll talk till you're blue in the face about hard-nosed, economic macroeconomic policies, but in the meantime I’ve got a bunch of kids right now who are graduating, and I want to give them some sense that they can have an impact on their immediate circumstances, and the joys of fatherhood.
And we did something with My Brother’s Keepers -- which emphasizes apprenticeships and emphasizes corporate responsibility, and we're gathering resources to give very concrete hooks for kids to be able to advance. And I’m going very hard at issues of criminal justice reform and breaking this school-to-prison pipeline that exists for so many young African American men. But when I’m sitting there talking to these kids, and I’ve got a boy who says, you know what, how did you get over being mad at your dad, because I’ve got a father who beat my mom and now has left, and has left the state, and I’ve never seen him because he’s trying to avoid $83,000 in child support payments, and 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. (Laughter and applause.)
I’m going to have a conversation with him about how I tried to understand what it is that my father had gone through, and how issues that were very specific to him created his difficulties in his relationships and his children so that I might be able to forgive him, and that I might then be able to come to terms with that.
And I don't apologize for that conversation. I think -- and so this is what I mean when -- or this is where I agree very much with Bob that this is not an either/or conversation. It is a both-and.
That argument might not win over Coates, or the president's other critics, about whether a Morehouse commencement is the right time and place for that. But it's a powerful argument on the merits. Obama's not backing down from a belief in government, or saying that young black men need to prove they're worthy before society should invest in them. He's saying that when you, personally, are faced with someone in pain, you should have something to offer them that might help them cope with the difficult situation they're in — you should be able to engage them on a human scale, not just a political one.
That's a steep challenge. And it's something many members of Obama's own tribe — Washington-centered, Democratic Party–affiliated liberals — struggle with more than their ideological counterparts to the left and to the right. Conservatives — particularly religious conservatives — often understand that the most immediate, most compassionate aid to people in poverty can come from the people closest to them. And leftists often take it on themselves to build the utopia they want to see: the original Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York set up its own library and day-care facility. Liberals, sometimes, just offer wishes that government would step in to provide these things, instead of an alternative when it doesn't.
That's a perfectly consistent ideology — after all, it's not liberals' fault that their preferred policies aren't implemented immediately — but it can be kind of a cold and self-involved way to go through life. Obama's not disagreeing with liberals about what a better American response to poverty ought to be. But he's showing they have something to learn about what they can do in the meantime — beyond a snide comment or two about Fox News.
Correction: While Robert Putnam's work definitely counts as sociology, the author himself is a political scientist. The author apologizes for her parochialism.