The candidates have also spent little time in the inner cities. Romney’s lone foray into urban America came when he visited a west Philadelphia charter school in May. He was heckled. Obama has traveled to Cleveland, Detroit, Miami, New York City, and Philadelphia, but mostly for fundraisers. Tavis Smiley, a television and radio talk-show host who, along with Princeton University professor Cornel West, launched a “Poverty Tour 2.0” last month of four states, argues that the nation’s first black president takes the African-American vote for granted and is wary of being accused of playing favorites.
“He’s too cautious, too calibrated, and, at times, too callous toward black voters,” Smiley said. “He wants black people to have his back, but to what degree does he have the backs of black voters?”
As president, Obama has only sparingly visited rural areas, as well. He passed through the upper Midwest and then Virginia and North Carolina last year on separate bus tours, but the places he visited were not in nearly as dire shape as Pike County.
NO TALK, NO WALK
The political calculations that led Obama and Romney to skip the nation’s poorest counties are starkly different. Visiting a struggling community as a freshman senator from Illinois on the verge of making history is different than appearing there as a sitting president who can be held accountable for the economy at hand. Campaigning in downtrodden areas has had the potential to be awkward for Romney. Along with the now-infamous “47 percent” remark at the Florida fundraiser, Romney said in January, “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it.” (Democratic critics seized on the first part of his quote.)
If the poor represent anything in this election, it’s ammunition, particularly for Romney, who has run ads that accuse Obama of gutting welfare-to-work requirements. (In the primary, Newt Gingrich derided Obama as “the food-stamp president.”) But lately, Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, have been trying to strike a more sympathetic chord in a bid to draw moderate voters. Ryan gave an address in Cleveland this week in which he rejected Democratic attacks that his ticket seeks to do away with the social safety net, but, at the same time, called on churches and communities, rather than the federal government, to take a leading role in helping the less fortunate.
“Republicans have been appealing to the fear or hatred of a class of people who they think are making out like bandits at their expense,” said Dean Baker, codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “It doesn’t surprise me that Obama and Romney are going to areas that are better off.”
Not only have Obama and Romney bypassed the nation’s hardest-hit communities, but they have also rarely talked in depth about the poor. For Romney, who spent his career creating wealth as a business consultant and venture capitalist, the fact that one out of six Americans are living in poverty is a trademark line in his stump speech. But the statistic is a brick used to build a case against Obama’s economic stewardship, not an introduction to a detailed blueprint of an antipoverty policy. Obama, a former community activist who cut his teeth fighting poverty in inner-city Chicago, always frames his policies as designed to rebuild the middle class.
“They’re not talking about poverty at all,” said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who advised John Edwards in 2008, one of the few presidential candidates to make the issue a centerpiece since Kennedy’s trip to Appalachia. “Both parties have become slaves to polls that say they need to talk only about the middle class. The poor are not seen as a persuadable voting bloc, and most of the country is not going to be persuaded by someone who wants to spend a lot of money helping poor people.”
While championing smaller government and less spending, Republicans have demonized food stamps and other welfare programs as colossal wastes of taxpayer dollars that encourage slackers to become freeloaders. As former President Reagan once put it, “Some years ago, the federal government declared war on poverty, and poverty won.” Republican Jack Kemp, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1988 and served as Housing secretary under President George H.W. Bush, often talked of launching a war against poverty—although, in his conservative vision, private markets would wage the battle, not big-government programs. Even so, Kemp’s focus on the poor made him stand out among Republicans.
Sporadic calls to put poverty at the center of the political campaign come only from low-profile, liberal corners. Half in Ten, a coalition of liberal groups trying to cut poverty in half in 10 years, used social media to lobby the moderators of the presidential debates to bring poverty back into the public debate. The effort failed. “We are trying to build public will in this country to cut poverty, but the word barely comes up,” said Eric Stegman, manager of the Half in Ten campaign and a poverty expert at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “Poverty is always buried under discussion about the struggles of the middle class.”