Why Obama's 2nd Term Should Be All About Taking on MLK's Anti-Poverty Crusade
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: This Monday marks the public inauguration that will usher in President Obama’s second term, and we turn now to the call for him to put more than 50 million Americans living in poverty at the top of his agenda. The issue has garnered attention in part because Obama will take the oath of office with his hand placed on two Bibles—one owned by Abraham Lincoln and the other owned by Martin Luther King Jr., known for his civil rights and anti-poverty activism. The inauguration also comes on January 21st, the federal holiday in honor of the civil rights leader, who delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech 50 years ago at the Lincoln Memorial. Obama will face the memorial as he takes the oath. He has addressed the issue of Martin Luther King and poverty before, in 2011, when he spoke at the dedication of the Martin Luther King Monument at the National Mall.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Nearly 50 years after the March on Washington, our work, Dr. King’s work, is not yet complete. We gather here at a moment of great challenge and great change. In the first decade of this new century, we have been tested by war and by tragedy, by an economic crisis and its aftermath that has left millions out of work and poverty on the rise and millions more just struggling to get by. Indeed, even before this crisis struck, we had endured a decade of rising inequality and stagnant wages. In too many troubled neighborhoods across the country, the conditions of our poorest citizens appear little changed from what existed 50 years ago, neighborhoods with underfunded schools and broken-down slums, inadequate healthcare, constant violence, neighborhoods in which too many young people grow up with little hope and few prospects for the future.
AMY GOODMAN: President Obama speaking in 2011 at the dedication of the Martin Luther King Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Well, journalist, author Tavis Smiley has spent the last year crisscrossing the country with activist, professor, preacher, Cornel West, to start a national conversation on poverty, which they address in their book, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. They’ve called on President Obama to organize a White House Conference on the Eradication of Poverty in America. And tonight Tavis will be in the nation’s capital moderating a nationally televised symposium called "Vision for a New America: A Future Without Poverty." The event begins a 6:30 p.m. Eastern time and will be broadcast live on C-SPAN at George Washington University. Tavis Smiley joins us now from Washington.
Tavis, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about what you’re doing and what you want President Obama to do, to convene.
TAVIS SMILEY: Thank you, Amy and Juan, for having me back on, and Dr. West sends his regards.
First of all, let me just say very quickly, with regard to the King Bible being used in this inauguration, I’m feeling ambivalent about that, in part because I always—I have always regarded Dr. King as the greatest American this country has ever produced. And any celebration, any honor of Dr. King that keeps his legacy at the center of the conversation is important. But I’m feeling some sort of way about this because at a moment where this country is using more drones than ever before, oftentimes killing innocent women and children, at a moment when this country continues to render poor people invisible, at a moment when this country continues to escalate militarily, all the things that concerned Dr. King, those—that triple threat, those three evils that King talked about, are more out of control now than ever before. And so it’s one thing to engage in the symbolism of placing our hand on his Bible; it’s quite another to get down to the real work of—the substantive work that King would want us to be doing, were he here now—so that on Monday, President Obama will be in the foreground, but Dr. King clearly stands and looms large in the background, as the backdrop, if you will.
And so, I think the question that we have to ask ourselves now is the same question Dr. King asked when he was alive. "Life’s most persistent and urgent question," said King, "is: What are you doing for others?" "Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?" And so, if we can’t make the world safe for his legacy by making poverty, the eradication of poverty a priority, then something is wrong with our commitment, our commitment to King’s legacy. And so, tonight we’re going to continue to do our small part to try to make poverty and its eradication a priority in the nation, here at George Washington University.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: And, Tavis, the past few months, all this emphasis in the media and in Congress on the fiscal cliff, but the little talk about the growing nature—the spread of poverty in America and how the reduction of many of these, quote, "entitlement programs" will lead to even greater poverty.
TAVIS SMILEY: Yeah. The president has been given high marks, as you know, by his supporters and by others, and the media certainly has declared him the winner in these January fiscal cliff negotiations. But, of course, you and Amy both know that we won’t really know how good this deal was in January until we get to March, when we get to the debt ceiling conversation and when these entitlement cuts are on the table. I’ve said many times before that budgets are moral documents. Budgets are moral documents. And when we get to this kind of debate in March about these entitlement cuts, then we’re going to see how good this deal in January allegedly was.
But something is wrong when your economic policy has you teetering on cliffs and bumping up against ceilings. That’s no way to run a country. It’s certainly no way to prioritize poverty. The bottom line is that President Obama ought to do two things, and he ought to do them quickly. Number one, he ought to give a major public policy address on the eradication of poverty. Here’s a guy who starts out as a community organizer, who speaks eloquently of Dr. King, who has a bust of Dr. King in the White House Oval Office, has—will be inaugurated on King’s holiday. What are we going to do about pushing our president to give a major public policy address on the eradication of poverty, number one? And number two, then to call and convene a White House Conference on the Eradication of Poverty, bring the experts together and create a national plan that can cut poverty in half in 10 years and eradicate it in 25. So, first, a major public policy address, and secondly, convening this conference to put together a national plan. We’re going to talk about that tonight and ask the public to help us engage the president on this issue by going to our website, AFutureWithoutPoverty.com, and signing the letter that we’re pushing out to the White House asking the president to do those very two things.
AMY GOODMAN: Tavis, yesterday President Obama convened a large gathering. Many of the people there were victims, the Newtown, Connecticut, mass killings that took place. Survivors were there, as well as other mass killings. President Obama had Joe Biden, the vice president, convene a commission to look at what should happen around the issue of gun violence, and they came out with their recommendations yesterday. Do you see this as a model for what you want to happen around poverty?
TAVIS SMILEY: Absolutely. And it ought to be clear, there’s a lot on the president’s plate. That’s what it means to be president, to try to manage the richest nation in the world, that ought not to have more and more people falling into poverty, a nation that ought not buy the argument that just because you want sensible gun control legislation, that somehow the Second Amendment is under attack. There’s a huge gap between repealing the Second Amendment and sensible gun laws. So I’m glad to see the president take this issue on, but it is the case that in his first term he received an F from the Brady Campaign on gun control legislation, an F. So, I think that we’re seeing now that he’s going to improve his grade on that, if he stiffens his spine and stands firm on these executive actions and, moreover and more importantly, the fight that he’s going to have to engage with Congress. So I’m glad to see him taking these steps.
Having said that, look what it took to get here. I mean, look at all these mass—I mean, the fact that those victims were there at the White House for this announcement speaks to the fact, Amy, that we’ve allowed this to go on and on and on, and only when the most innocent and precious children in our nation are shot down do we finally get the backbone to take these issues seriously. And that’s my point, that I don’t know what else has to happen for us to recognize that poverty is threatening our very democracy, that poverty is now a matter of national security. And when you tackle poverty, you deal with these other issues that are tentacles of poverty—a horrible education system and lack of housing and lack of good jobs with a living wage, etc., etc. So, poverty ought to be something, I think, that the president can wrap his legacy around, if he wants to have a legacy of which he and we can be proud.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: Tavis, I’m wondering if your campaign, as you’ve been going around the country, whether you feel it’s had any impact on corporate leaders in America? Thirty years ago, the biggest private employer in America was General Motors, and every worker had a union job, a pension and a middle-class situation. Now the biggest employer is Wal-Mart, private employer, and most of their workers are in poverty themselves because of the low wages and the lack of benefits. Your sense that your campaign is having any impact on corporate leaders?
TAVIS SMILEY: Well, corporate America is hard to crack. I will say this: You know, we—you know, people go hard at Wal-Mart, and I believe that companies ought to be respectful of the health of their employees and the equity pay of their employees, etc., but this announcement they made about hiring these military veterans, given the work that you cover here on The War and Peace Report, I think is significant. And so, the point here is that corporations can lead. Corporations can advance the conversation. For example, you know, in this country, as the Supreme Court continues every so often to file these affirmative action cases, it has been the case that oftentimes corporate America has led the government when it comes to trying to address the issue of affirmative action. So, that’s not always the case.
So I don’t know what impact we’re going to have or have had already. What I do know is that this president and all of our leaders in Washington typically don’t tend to do much unless they get pushed. And now is the time for us to push all of our leaders on the issue of poverty and ask the president to provide some leadership on this. There is a link between gun violence and poverty. The younger you are, the more likely you are to be poor; the poorer you are, the more likely you are to be subject to random gun violence. And when we have a conversation about Sandy Hook, we have to also remember that black and brown kids are gunned down in this country every day, and nobody says anything.
AMY GOODMAN: Tavis, as we wrap up, what you’re doing tonight at George Washington University, and then the tour you’re taking afterwards?
TAVIS SMILEY: Yeah, so tonight, George Washington Univesity, doors open at 5:00, if you’re in the D.C. area. We go live on C-SPAN tonight at 6:30 for a spirited debate—Cornel West and Jeffrey Sachs and Jonathan Kozol, but also Newt Gingrich and others. So it’s going to be a spirited debate about how we make poverty a priority. That’s tonight.
And then we’re starting our tour tomorrow night at Butler University in Indianapolis, going to colleges and universities for the next week or two, trying to get young people engaged on this very issue of making poverty a priority in the nation.AFutureWithoutPoverty.com is where you can get all the details.
AMY GOODMAN: Tavis Smiley, I want to thank you for being with us, a television/radio broadcaster on public television and radio, New York Times best-selling author. Tonight at George Washington University, a summit on poverty.
That does it for our show. On Monday, we’ll be broadcasting live from the capital on Martin Luther King Day and the inauguration. We’ll be broadcasting from 8:00 Eastern Standard Time, our regular start time for Democracy Now!, right through 1:00, broadcasting the inaugural ceremonies and bringing in different voices from all over this country. Check out democracynow.org.