Obama must make poverty reduction a priority for his second term

To be a truly transformative president, Obama must bring the issue of urban poverty out from the political fringes.

As Barack Obama prepares for his second inauguration in front of the Capitol building on Monday, most politicos are by now familiar with the demographics which helped put him there. Election night saw 96 per cent of African-Americans vote for the President; 70 per cent of Hispanics and 73 per cent of Asian Americans. Less dependent on traditional independent voters, the Democrats 'expanded the electorate' by boosting turnout in these communities. 

That this causes a problem for the Republicans has quickly become conventional wisdom. It's been little noted, though, how the demographics of 6 November create a challenge for the Democrats too. An important component of the Obama campaign's "get-out-the-vote" (GOTV) effort was the President's personal appeal. There was a pronounced sense of a personal connection between many non-white voters and Obama, and of protectiveness (of which race was one but not the only factor).

The question for 2016 is, how do the Democrats maintain that level of support without Obama on the ticket? They are unlikely to find a candidate with the charisma, backstory and platform to match Obama, whose breakthrough was a truly once-in-a-generation event. 

The answer can only be that, from the White House to the Senate, Democrats need to go further in the next four years to deliver on substance for these communities. Here, immigration reform is often mentioned. But just as pressing is the indelible link between race and poverty in America, particularly in urban areas.

Far too many of the majority black neighbourhoods that helped deliver Obama's re-election in states like Virginia or Ohio continue to be blighted by hardship. A litany of grim statistics bears this out. More than 1 in 4 African-Americans and Hispanics grow up in extreme poverty - with millions struggling just above this threshold. Forty per cent of children in African-American communities grow up below the poverty line (the US is ranked 34 out of 35 of industrialised countries when it comes to child poverty). Poverty is not of course simply an ethnic minority issue – but they are clearly disproportionately affected.

None of this is new. The statistics are familiar, and wash over many American heads by now. But as Michael Harrington once wrote in his seminal book on the subject, The Other America, "you can rationalise statistics...but you cannot rationalise an indignity". Nearly fifty years after Martin Luther-King said that "I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture of their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits", a significant chunk of the US is still held down by hunger, violence, illness, poor education and precariousness. And sadly, that number has increased since 2007.

Anyone going door-to-door in the election in some of the poorer parts of places like Franklin County in Ohio would have found many who benefited in some small way from the President's first term. Particularly so on healthcare. Stimulus spending and his general stewardship of the economy have also stopped a total collapse in living standards. It could have been a lot worse.

But, as the likes of Paul Tough have argued brilliantly, this is not the prospectus on poverty that Obama the candidate first emerged on. Then, he gave speeches – like the one in Anacostia which Tough details – arguing for a wide-ranging approach to poverty in America. Higher minimum wages and better union representation featured, but also specialised parenting, nutrition and early education programmes. 

If the campaign was anything to go by, the prospect of returning to this seems weak. In the parks and multi-purpose arenas in which Obama delivered his campaign stump speech, the mention of poverty was noticeably scant for a candidate largely relying on GOTV among poor neighbourhoods. If it was name checked it was in a more conventionally liberal way, usually about the need for more teachers – rather than at the heart of his moral vision as once before; his words had lost their transformative edge. As some observed, at times it was like listening to a John Kerry speech.

Prior to that, in office, Obama put up none of the fight for an increase in the minimum wage that he had pledged. He gave not one single speech on poverty itself. Many of the programs he once envisioned exist but remain under-funded and minuscule compared to his initial vision. The basis of union organisation remains weak, as legislation aimed at strengthening it fizzled out early on.

Little of this is Obama's fault alone, of course, but it speaks to a nation's priorities. It's part of a wider cultural blind spot in the US. As Harrington wrote all those years ago, a key dimension of poverty in America is its invisibility to many people. There are certain neighbourhoods most folks don't go into, certain parts of town many go their whole lives without seeing, especially in places like Washington. There's little space in the 'American dream' narrative for those who don't pull themselves up to greatness, or the middle class, but who quietly struggle for their whole lives. It's time the President carved one.

As in the UK, the problem is one not just of unemployment but perilously low wages and economic insecurity. The percentage of those working but still in poverty is at its highest in nearly two decades; average wages are in a thirty year slump. And more and more Americans are falling closer to the threshold

For this reason, it's particularly welcome that Obama prioritised, fought for and won protection of the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit in the recent fiscal cliff negotiations, which the Republicans had earmarked for abolition. Beyond that, though, he urgently needs to rediscover the spirit and ideas that animated his early words and interventions on poverty, like the one in Anacostia. African-American community leaders are gathering this week to pressure the President into making urban poverty a priority for his second term. 

There's no doubt that Obama remains a deeply intelligent and thoughtful man, of authentic social compassion. But his record on poverty is a case study in his journey from transformational candidate to good, solid but unspectacular liberal incumbent. He is said to worry about his place in history in this respect, and has asked historians how he can match up to likes of Lincoln. Bringing poverty out from the political fringes offers him this opportunity. For the Democrats, too, it can no longer be dismissed as a 'core vote' concern which turns off swing voters – if they are to replicate 2012's voting coalition in 2016, turnout among minority voters is the swing vote. They will need to act and deliver on a malaise still ubiquitous in far too many of those voters' lives. An electoral imperative has been given to an issue which should long ago have been a moral one.

Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet the audience at Burrville Elementary School after participating in National Day of Service on January 19, 2013 in Washington DC. Photograph: Getty Images.

Steven Akehurst blogs at My Correct Views on Everything

Photo: Getty Images
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Cameron needs to decide what he thinks about Russia

David Cameron's words suggest one thing, his actions quite another.

David Cameron needs to decide whether he takes Russia seriously.

He certainly talks a good game, calling Vladimir Putin to account for crimes against Ukrainian sovereignty and for supporting the wrong side in Syria, claiming credit for bolstering the post-Crimea sanctions regime, and demanding that Moscow’s behaviour change. And the new Strategic Defence & Security Review, published last week, puts Russia front and centre among the threats Britain faces.

The problem is, his government’s foreign policy seems calculated to make no one happier than Putin himself.

At fault is not a failure of analysis. It has taken Whitehall 19 months since Moscow annexed Crimea to develop a new Russia policy, replacing the old aspirations of “strategic partnership based on common values”, but the conviction that Russia be treated as a significant threat to the U.K.’s security and prosperity is solid.

Five years ago, when the coalition government published the last Strategic Defence & Security Review, Russia was mentioned once, in the context of rising global powers with whom London could partner to help solve planetary problems, from nuclear proliferation to climate change. The new SDSR tells a very different story. Russia gets 28 mentions this time around, characterised as a “state threat” that “may feel tempted to act aggressively against NATO allies.” Russia’s annexation of Crimea and instigation of a separatist civil war in eastern Ukraine are mentioned in the same sentence with Assad’s chemical weapons attacks on Syrian civilians and the rise of the Islamic State as key examples of how the world is becoming a more dangerous place.

How that threat will be countered, however, is not a question Whitehall can answer: it is a question for Westminster, and it gets to the heart of where this government sees its place in the world, and in Europe in particular. What Whitehall cannot say – but what the politicians must recognise – is this: the best bulwark against the Kremlin is a strengthened European Union, with more integrated markets and the force to push a concerted foreign policy in the Eastern Neighbourhood. And that recognition requires Cameron to decide whether Putin poses a greater challenge than Nigel Farage.

The SDSR is right to note that the danger of a military confrontation with Russia is remote. Just in case, the Government has committed to bolstering aerial defences, contributing to NATO’s rapid reaction capabilities and maintaining the sanctions regime until a full settlement is reached that restores Ukrainian sovereignty. These are all reasonable measures, which will go some distance to ensuring that Moscow understands the risks of further escalation in the near term. But they do nothing to address the longer term problem.

From a hard-security perspective, Russia is a nuisance. The real danger is in the threat Moscow poses to what the SDSR calls the “rules-based order” – that system of institutions, agreements and understandings that underpin stability and prosperity on the European continent. That order is about more than respecting national borders, important as that is. It is also about accepting that markets are impartially regulated, that monopolies are disallowed and political and economic power reside in institutions, rather than in individuals. It is, in other words, about accepting rules that are almost the polar opposite of the system that Russia has built over the past 25 years, an order based on rents, clientelism and protected competitive positions.

Russia, after all, went to war over a trade treaty. It invaded Ukraine and annexed part of its territory to prevent the full implementation of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement that was designed to make Ukraine function more like Europe and less like Russia. From Moscow’s point of view, the European project is a very real geopolitical threat, one that promises to reduce the territory in which Russia can compete and, eventually, to increase the pressure on Russia itself to change. In somewhat less pernicious ways Moscow is seeking similarly to derail Moldova’s and Georgia’s European integration, while working hard to keep Belarus and Armenia from straying.

This is not a problem of vision or diplomacy, a failure to convince Putin of the value of the European way of doing things. For Putin and those on whose behalf he governs, the European way of doing things carries negative value. And unless the basic structure of politics and economics in Russia shifts, that calculation won’t change when Putin himself leaves the Kremlin. For the foreseeable future, Russia’s rulers will be willing to go to extraordinary lengths to prevent the widening of Europe, at the cost of instability and dysfunction in the region.

European willingness is another question. A chorus of euro=sceptics both left and right have demanded that Europe stop provoking the Russian bear, leaving the Eastern Neighbourhood countries to fend for themselves – sacrificing Kiev’s sovereignty to Moscow in order to bolster their own sovereignty from Brussels. Cracks, too, are emerging in the centre of the political spectrum: as French President Francois Hollande pledged to work with Moscow to fight ISIS in Syria, Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared that such an alliance would necessitate the lifting of sanctions on Russia, thus trading stability in Syria for instability in Ukraine.

As a member of the EU, London has a role to play. Together with Berlin, London could exert pressure on Paris and keep the margins of the political spectrum marginal. London could through its weight behind a common energy market, forcing Gazprom to play by EU competition rules. London could bolster anti-corruption systems and ensure that ill-gotten gains have no safe haven in Europe. London could insist on the legitimacy of the European project from one end of the continent to the other.

Instead, London is threatening Brexit, relinquishing any leverage over its European allies, and seeking EU reforms that would eviscerate the common energy market, common financial regulation, the common foreign and security policy and other key tools in the relationship with Russia.

In their February 2015 report on EU-Russian relations, the House of Lords raised the question of “whether Europe can be secure and prosperous if Russia continues to be governed as it is today.” To be sure, Europe can’t change Russia’s government and shouldn’t try. But by insisting on its own rules – both in how it governs its internal markets and in how it pursues its foreign policy – Europe can change the incentives Russia’s government faces.

The question, then, to Cameron is this: Whose rules would Westminster rather see prevail in the Eastern Neighbourhood, Europe’s or Russia’s?

Samuel A. Greene is Director of the King’s Russia Institute, King’s College London.