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On Obama SOTU: Obama More in Command, but Ignored Poverty

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.

Now joining us to talk about President Obama’s State of the Union speech is Dayvon Love. Dayvon is president of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle in Baltimore, Maryland. He was also a candidate in the city elections recently. Thanks for joining us, Dayvon.

DAYVON LOVE, PRESIDENT, LEADERS OF A BEAUTIFUL STRUGGLE: Thanks a lot. How are you doing?

JAY: Thanks for staying up so late. So what’s your take on the speech? What’s your first impression?

LOVE: I was actually quite surprised with the assertive tone that Barack Obama had during the speech. I mean, one of the things that has been a constant criticism of Obama, and myself included, a criticism that I’ve had of him, is that he’s been too lax, too compromising. But this is a speech where he demonstrated the kind of leadership that I think people have been waiting for, which is the kind of leadership that is more aggressive and more assertive so he could stand his ground.

JAY: But is part of the problem this is an election speech? I mean, is there any reason to think that this is any more than election rhetoric? And if he’s reelected, that essentially it’s a replay of the last four years?

LOVE: Yeah. I mean, I’m kind of conflicted about what I think about the content in the speech, because, you know, in many ways the rhetoric actually appealed a whole lot more to the left, to the left as a political base, than I would think during an election year, when many people try to play as close to the middle as possible. And so I’m kind of conflicted, because I’m not sure that’s just a result of the political climate being such that it lent itself to a very progressive message in terms of public policy, or if it’s just a part of his galvanizing of his base.

JAY: What struck you as so progressive? ‘Cause, like, on the jobs program it was all about market policies. He was very clear everything had to be done through the private sector. In terms of the bank regulations and all this, the kind of things in fact that have been done have not been very strong, and the issue that banks can no longer play, take risks with your money and so on, it really isn’t true. The regulations have been very weak. What seemed progressive to you?

LOVE: Yeah. I mean, I guess for me the rhetoric more so than the actual policies. I mean, I think a president who—you know, like Barack Obama, who in many instances has been afraid to even really talk directly and sternly about, you know, the nature of deregulation, and how it is, you know, created an economic climate that is bad for working people, and really talking about the importance of those who can afford to pay their fair share, you know, I just feel like with the amount of energy and emphasis that he put on that, to me, is more progressive than I’ve heard him throughout his presidency. And, I mean, you know, in the constraints of contemporary political landscape, you know, there’s only so progressive that he’s going to actually be, you know, in the State of the Union.

JAY: Right. You ran for city council in Baltimore in a district where there’s a lot of poverty and, you know, hundreds if not thousands of boarded-up houses, a public school system which is collapsing, more or less. Did you hear anything in the speech that talked to the poverty facing many American inner cities?

LOVE: I mean, one of the things that is disgraceful about contemporary political discourse is its lack of attention on the communities that are represented in the 8th District of Baltimore city, I mean, particularly if you look at the emphasis on the middle class without really, you know, the discussion of the working class. You know, so for me that’s just—I don’t see that necessarily as a problem squarely on Obama’s rhetoric, but more as a problem with the limitations of the contemporary political discourse.

The one thing, though, that I actually got very excited about in the speech was that he said the phrase that we need to stop "teaching to the test". And to me, just that sentence, I think, was very important, because for me it speaks to the very foundation of a system that generates the kind of poverty that we see in cities like Baltimore. I mean, if the president of the United States is willing to say that teaching to the test is a bankrupt pedagogical practice, then I think it opens up the possibilities for public education that we may not have seen in previous administrations.

JAY: What would you have liked to have heard that you didn’t hear?

LOVE: I mean, I would have liked to hear about more investment in communities of poverty. You know, one of the things that Newt Gingrich has said, you know, a lot recently is talking about Obama as a food stamps president. And one of the problems in the discourse on that is that there aren’t enough people that are (A) unpacking that discourse and parsing out the implications of that discourse, the racial and class implications of that discourse, right, because what it does is that it creates a veil that then makes any attempt to address the substantive social inequalities to seem as if they are an attempt to coddle to the needs of the poor, instead of, you know, being engaged in a form of social justice. The other problem with the way that that discourse is addressed is that people don’t take the time to articulate all the moving parts of a hyper market economy that is more interested in profits than in investing in the communities that would make, you know, everyone—it will make everyone prosperous. And so that’s something I really would have liked to hear.

JAY: I mean, I don’t think I heard the word poverty in the speech.

LOVE: Yeah, not all.

JAY: Or the poor for that matter.

LOVE: Not at all. And for me, I mean, you know—and while even mentioning it would have been better, I just think that that particular line of argumentation that Newt Gingrich and others are engaged in is of particular importance, because I think—because it’s not just a question of it coming up in conversation or it coming up in the discourse in politics, but it’s a question of, you know, what argumentation can be deployed in defense of programs that substantively address poverty.

JAY: Yeah, and he didn’t take on this Gingrich position. And, I mean, I think the stats are the majority of people on food stamps—if not the majority, close to a majority—are actually have jobs and work. They just have such lousy wages they can’t make it through a month. So this kind of dichotomy between, you know, paycheck versus food stamps is completely false. But President Obama didn’t take it on.

LOVE: Right. I mean, and what’s interesting is that many of the—in many states, you know, because a lot of welfare programs and food stamp programs, you know, they’re adjusted to the state, you know, whatever state that they’re in, and in many states there are work requirements that are attached to a lot of these requirements, so, I mean, yeah, part of it is the demystification of the nature of food stamps so that, you know, the image that we have in our minds of it isn’t just a lazy person sitting around, but we can actually—you know, the attempt to humanizing those who are casted as food—they’re just food stamp recipients, passive food stamp recipients, would have been something that I would have appreciated Barack Obama addressing, especially it being in his interests, since that’s the primary rhetorical weapon that, you know, one of his potential competitors for the presidency is going to use.

JAY: [incompr.] Thanks for a much for joining us, Dayvon.

LOVE: No problem. Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on Real News Network.

End

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