Even Obama’s nuanced mention of those “working hard to try to get into the middle class” reflects an American mindset that is both dangerous and detrimental: the idea that real poverty — in its worst forms, at least — doesn’t actually exist here. Politicians have developed new ways to talk about the poor without referring to them as such — always careful not to insult. Except, of course, Romney, whose lack of tact may have been his undoing.
So what now?
Census data from 2012 shows that 97.3 million Americans fall into the category defined as low-income — roughly less than $45,000 a year for a family of four — and 49.1 million live below the poverty line. Together that accounts for 146.1 million people, or 48 percent of the entire U.S. population. Broken down by race and ethnicity, Hispanics were the most likely to be poor or low-income, at 73 percent, followed by African-Americans, Asians and whites.
Pretending the problem doesn’t exist simply won’t do.
Income inequality is at all-time high, and IRS data shows the top 1 percent of families garnered 93 percent of income gains in 2009 and 2010. Meanwhile corporate profits soared but average wage incomes declined. Republicans decried Obama’s plan as a “redistribution of wealth,” but voters clearly didn’t buy it. President Obama’s second-term agenda and the stature he displayed in last week’s press conference are emboldened by a re-election victory that saw him lead Romney by a 3 million-plus popular vote advantage.
NPR’s Frank James points out that elections have consequences — which include exit polls. More than 60 percent of voters agreed with Obama’s plan to increase taxes on the wealthy, and the president himself acknowledged this support came from many who did not vote for him. Exit polls also showed 55 percent of voters believe the economy favors the rich, and 53 percent said Romney’s proposals would disproportionately favor the wealthy. Obama’s campaign message won out: Assist those in need, and ask people at the top “to pay their fair share.”
The political capital Obama garnered with his re-election could quickly dissipate, making the fiscal-cliff negotiations key in setting the tone and rebalancing the power dynamic in his favor. Soon the political discourse could shift toward Republican talking points, the Benghazi 9/11 attack or the Israeli-Gaza conflict.
For a second-term president concerned about fulfilling promises as well as securing a legacy, Obama can’t afford to ignore the mandate he was so decisively given. Helping those at the bottom needs to be at the top of his list.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.