Spotlight Exclusives

The Election 2012 Poverty Debate: A Discussion with Obama and Romney Policy Directors – Part Two

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President Obama began his second term this month by declaring in his inaugural address that “a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.” With those words as a backdrop, Spotlight is taking a look back at the evolving focus on poverty and opportunity during the past election season. To gauge where the policy debate on this critical issue has been, and where it is likely headed, we interviewed James Kvaal, policy director for President Obama۪s re-election campaign, and Lanhee Chen, policy director for the Romney campaign.

In separate interviews, both were asked the same set of questions focusing on the role of poverty and opportunity in their respective campaigns. Spotlight is presenting their answers in a two-part series.

This is part two of the two part series. Read part one here.

Spotlight: Thinking about the way in which poverty was or wasn’t an issue in the campaign, how do you think the issue will figure in national politics going forward? What should we expect?

James Kvaal: In his inaugural address this month, President Obama called for a nation that rewards the effort of every single American, and provides every citizen with a basic measure of security and dignity.  He called for new approaches to live up to our ideals and, at the same time, strengthen our economy. Economic insecurity will continue to be a central challenge for our country and our politics. And that is a challenge that includes lower- and middle-income families that have seen their incomes stagnate as health care, housing and education costs have grown significantly. And the folks who feel the brunt of that are often people living in poverty. So these questions will continue to be central for the president, and the country, for the next four years and beyond.

Lanhee Chen: As a policy matter, there is a lot of interest in thinking about what to do whether it is plans relating to how you incentivize greater savings and investments or how you design government spending programs to create greater accountability at the state and local levels, such as block-granting Medicaid. There is any number of different policy innovations that you can consider, and because there are innovations to be had in this area, it will remain in the policy dialogue. I do think that folks like Paul Ryan and (Senator) Marco Rubio and others are going to spend a lot of time talking about these issuesbecause it۪s important for the future of the country and the future of the party. For people in minority populations who may also be poor, they are not inclined to consider the Republican brand right now. That۪s a problem as far as our political forces go.

There are some governors doing good work on these issues like (Governor) Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and (Governor) John Kasich of Ohio. I think these are going to continue to be issues that will be a part of the dialogue on our side of the aisle.

Spotlight: Do you think Republicans/Democrats are talking about these issues in the right way?  What would you change about how the issue is framed and how the policies are discussed?

JK: Among those of us who care about the problem of poverty, there has always been tension between people who say that we should be talking about the problems of the very poor in a way that is unique from the problems of the working class, and there are people who say these problems are similar and we should talk about ways to lift all of them up. My view is that there is room for both of these approaches. President Obama has laid out an agenda for building a bigger middle class but keeping in mind that special efforts are needed to address the uneven pace of recovery in some communities.

LC: I think some Republicans are talking effectively about this and in a way people don۪t expect. Anytime you have something unexpected, the media likes to cover it. There will be a fair amount of interest. The reality is that people۪s minds are turned to 2016. The wounds have not healed yet but we are talking about 2016. If these leaders want to find themselves in the middle of that contest, their desire to talk about these issues will elevate them in the media.

Spotlight: How can we make sure poverty is a significant issue in electoral politics? What is the role of candidates, the media, and advocates?

JK: I think that all of us who care about this issue need to keep talking about. We should keep asking the candidates about it and keep the conversation going in our communities. If enough voters are asking candidates to address the problem, then they will feel compelled to put forward new ideas.

LC: I am hopeful because as a personal matter, it۪s crucial that the Republican Party and policymakers in general confront questions of how we deal with those who have been less fortunate. I think politically it۪s easier to turn a blind eye because it is maybe looking at a population that۪s not politically active or aren۪t going to be campaign contributors. It is essential that policymakers pay attention, because the measure of a healthy society is one where the poor feel like they can move upwards by playing by the rules and playing within the confines of the system we have.


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