Published July 12, 2013
Standing before an audience of 80,000 rapturous supporters and framed by a pair of giant Greek columns, Barack Obama partly used his 2008 nomination acceptance speech in Denver to showcase a subject he has mostly seen fit, ever since, to avoid. "We are more compassionate," he said back then, "than a government that lets veterans sleep on our streets and families slide into poverty."
But since then, the poverty rate has increased: from 13.1 percent in 2008 to 15.1 percent in the most recent measurements released by the U.S. Census Bureau. And while he is widely seen as an ally of those Democratic constituencies most apt to focus on the plight of the underclass, Obama has actually mentioned the poor less frequently than any of his modern predecessors in the Oval Office.
A new study by Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a non-profit center whose social scientists study issues of concern to Catholics, tabulated all references to an economic class that have appeared in the public papers of each president dating back to John F. Kennedy, the nation's first -- and to date only -- Catholic president.
The study found that Lyndon B. Johnson, architect of the 1960s "War on Poverty," was most apt, among the modern presidents, to mention the poor in some form or fashion: 84 percent of the time he made reference to any economic class. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter came next, with both mentioning the underclass approximately three-quarters of the time. Presidents Ford, Reagan, and George W. Bush all rated in the mid-to-high 60s, with Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton not far behind. George Herbert Walker Bush, the study found, was apt to speak about the poor fully half the time.
Only then -- dead last in the Georgetown rankings -- comes Barack Obama, who mentions the nation's least well-off only 26 percent of the time.
Instead, the incumbent is much more likely to invoke the middle class. The study finds him doing so more than half the time he makes reference to an economic class in his public pronouncements, with Obama's nearest competitors in that category being Bill Clinton, who mentioned the middle class 23 percent of the time, and George H.W. Bush, who did so 14 percent of the time.
Contacted about the study by Fox News, the White House declined to comment on the record. However, the White House website features statistics on "urban and economic mobility" stating that the stimulus measures enacted during the president's first term have directly lifted at least 7 million Americans out of poverty, and eased the suffering of another 32 million Americans still below the poverty line.
"I care less about the rhetoric than the actual actions that were taken," said liberal commentator Alan Colmes, a Fox News contributor. "The president has done specific things to improve the economy. ... If you're raising the middle class, you're helping everybody who makes less than that."
Noam Neusner, a former White House speechwriter under President George W. Bush, suggested the opposite: that the chief deficiency in the current White House, where the poor are concerned, is one of policy more than rhetoric.
"(President Obama) doesn't have a program for the poor," Neusner said. "His focus is not so much on the problem of poverty in America; his focus has been on the problem of super-wealth in America. ... And as Margaret Thatcher famously said to her colleagues on the Labour side, 'You don't care about the poor; all you care about is making the rich poor.'"
The study of presidential statements by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate grew out of another inquiry its social scientists were conducting: into the large number of Catholics that may run for president in 2016, and the potential that may hold for a renewed focus on poverty in the next presidential cycle.