What President Obama Really Said About Poverty at Georgetown

According to Vox’s Dara Lind, Liberals are reducing one of the most fascinating speeches of Obama’s career to a Fox News joke.

Describing a Tuesday night panel at Georgetown featuring Obama, researcher Robert Putnam, AEI head Arthur Brooks (yes, that guy who gave that speech about how to talk about education), and columnist E. J. Dionne, Lind makes the claim that focusing on Obama’s jab at Fox News shouldn’t obscure the President’s “warning for liberals” about over-reliance on government for helping people in suffering, the tendency to mock conservatives, and the dangers of class segregation over racial segregation.

In fact, Obama argues that middle-class white Americans who might identify themselves as liberals aren’t necessarily familiar and engaged with the challenges facing their poor neighbors because, well, they don’t have any:

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.

Linda also notes that Obama defended the way he talks to young Black men, which has been challenged by some like The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates who feel that it’s not appropriate to lecture those who aren’t responsible for the circumstances into which they were born and raised:

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… 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.

As Lind writes:

“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.”

These are all good and important points Lind makes about the need for liberals and moderates within the Democratic party to reflect (and the difference between policy and practice), even if there’s not a ton of evidence that the (liberal) mainstream media has focused narrowly on the Fox News-baiting or other jabs taken at conservatives. Here’s a transcript of the event from the White House. Here’s the Politico story, and one from the NYT.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.