Why Didn’t President Obama Mention the Poor (More Than Twice)?

Charles Blow is in the New York Times this weekend expanding on a meme that has been bouncing around, that President Obama’s State of the Union address

failed to mention poor people

at all. Now, there is certainly a case to be made that the speech was written in the language of the ruling elite; whether he was capitulating to the plutocracy or trying to co-opt it, Obama spoke largely in the bleak and amoral ideological language of Stage IV metastatic global capitalism—America and Americans are bound by necessity and duty to “invest,” to “compete,” to “win,” to abandon the outmoded notion of a fair paycheck for a fair day’s work and to give their lives over to innovation and entrepreneurship and risk-taking in a ceaseless global struggle to become the exploiters rather than the exploited. To

Win the Future


Nevertheless! The president still did talk about the poor.

Around the 37 1/2  minute mark


I recognize that some in this chamber have already proposed deeper cuts, and I’m willing to eliminate whatever we can honestly afford to do without. But let’s make sure that we’re not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.

And again, at 40 minutes:

[W]e should also find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations. We must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans’ guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market.

Sure, these were glancing references. But everything is a glancing reference. The State of the Union is so ritualized by now, it’s all transacted in shorthand. The president doesn’t formally introduce the individual Regular American heroes in the balcony anymore, either. They get mentioned in passing, in context, with the cameras alerted to cut to them at the chosen instant.

So when it came time to talk about budget cuts, Obama told Congress that he would fight back against efforts to reduce spending on the poor. He didn’t say “the poor”; he said “the most vulnerable,” which is the acknowledged direct euphemism that Democrats use to mean “the poor.” He went on to say that to balance the budget, the government should raise taxes on the rich (the way one says that is “ask millionaires to give up their tax break”).

Was it a historic address on poverty issues? Not at all. (Maybe partly because the guiding anxiety was the sense that most non-poor Americans are not at all sure they’re going to stay that way.) But saying that Obama didn’t mention the poor because he didn’t use the words “the poor” is like accusing a politician who talks about “the unborn” or “the culture of life” of not mentioning the abortion issue.