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4 Takeaways from Pres. Obama’s Conversation with Arthur Brooks and Robert Putnam

Thoughtful, bi-partisan conversations in Washington are a lot like uncooked steak—rare.

That’s why yesterday’s conversation on poverty between President Obama, AEI President Arthur Brooks, and Harvard Professor Robert Putnam was so unusual, intriguing, and encouraging. (The panel discussion—moderated by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne—was part of the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty being hosted at Georgetown University this week.)

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Why would a sitting president choose to speak on panel of this kind? In the President’s own words: to bring greater awareness to the important issue of poverty and attempt to bridge gaps between the left and the right. Not a bad start.

Here are a few takeaways from the conversation:

1) There was agreement on what is required to have an actual conversation.

In his opening remarks, President Obama lamented the hyperbolic stereotypes of the left and right. “The stereotype is that you’ve got folks on the left that just want to pour more money into social programs and don’t care about culture or parenting…. And then you’ve got coldhearted capitalist types who are reading Ayn Rand and think everybody’s moochers. And I think the truth is more complicated.” Ironically, he later made comments insinuating Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker John Boehner, and the Fox News network’s lack of concern for the poor. But at least he seems to honestly believe this sentiment in principle.

Echoing the President, Brooks emphasized the harm of ad hominem attacks to genuine discourse and progress on issues. He warned against “impugning the motives” of people with whom we disagree, making the point that an actual competition of ideas is impossible if the parties involved lack mutual respect and good will.

Personal attacks and straw man arguments may be easy and satisfying, but they are horribly damaging to productive conversation.

2) There was general agreement about the multi-faceted causes of poverty.

“It’s both/and—not either/or,” said Robert Putnam, and later, President Obama. Economic issues matter, but so do cultural issues. This is more or less the thesis of Putnam’s new book “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.” Certainly, overcoming poverty requires investing economically in poor communities—how, by whom, and to what extent, can be debated. But at the same time, families and civil society in those communities are crumbling and must be rebuilt. Both facets must be addressed.

[pq]Bi-partisan movement on the issue of poverty will take bold, yet open-minded leadership.[/pq]

President Obama spoke personally about conversations with college graduates and young kids, where he has emphasized the values of personal responsibility, character, and the importance of family. However, he continued, “And that is not something that—for me to have that conversation does not negate my conversation about the need for early childhood education, or the need for job training, or the need for greater investment in infrastructure, or jobs in low-income communities.” Again, both/and, not either/or.

Similarly, Brooks spoke of the need for morality to undergird any economic system. The system itself is just a machine—like a car, it can be used for good or bad. And he clarified that no serious thinkers, including libertarians, think there should be no government intervention in the market. F.A. Hayek even advocated for a safety net for the destitute.

3) There is still much disagreement about solutions.

The conversation didn’t delve too much into the details of policy. Beyond the Earned Income Tax Credit, which both President Obama and Brooks support, I’m sure there would have been a great deal of disagreement about the specifics of government regulation and redistribution if the discussion had continued.

One theoretical point to highlight here: Brooks stressed that for any policy we consider implementing, we must do a critical cost-benefit analysis to determine what its actual effects will be. In the end, our good intentions are hollow at the core if they don’t actually benefit the poor.

4) We must do something about middle-class entitlements.

Several times, President Obama mentioned disinvestments—on both federal and local levels—in public goods that would help the poor. He a called for a higher capital gains tax, in part, to pay for greater investments in infrastructure, public education, etc.

But as Brooks points out: “These are show issues.  Corporate jets are show issues.  Carried interest is a show issue.  The real issue?  Middle-class entitlements….  That’s where the real money is.  And the truth of the matter is until we can take that on—if we want to make progress, if the left and right want to make progress politically as they put together budgets, they’re going to have to make progress on that.”

If we are to make further investments in education, infrastructure, and the safety net for the poor—types of spending that most conservatives view as proper uses of public funds, we must get entitlement spending under control. Why are cities like Detroit or the federal government facing serious fiscal problems? Not because they have low tax rates, or because they are spending exorbitant amounts on infrastructure and education. It is primarily because of guaranteed, middle-class transfers (pensions, Medicare, Social Security, etc.) that are crowding out the ability to pay for other public goods.

There wasn’t a real chance for President Obama to respond to this point, but at the very least he didn’t push back. However, perhaps actions speak louder than words on this point. He pledged to pursue entitlement reform back in 2009, but has since done little to follow through on that promise.


Ultimately, bi-partisan movement on the issue of poverty will take bold, yet open-minded leadership. Like yesterday, President Obama and other leaders in Washington have often talked the talk, but on the bigger issues, we have yet to see if they will walk the walk.