President Obama's landslide victory on Nov. 6 was won amid a culture war between the haves and have-nots. Republican candidate Mitt Romney openly admitted that he wasn't "concerned about the very poor," and he privately derided the "47 percent" of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes, claiming they should learn to take responsibility and "care for their lives.” His running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, earned Tea Party bona fides by designing a budget plan that slashes billions from the social-safety net -- cutting funding from programs such as SNAP (food stamps), housing assistance, Medicaid, Pell Grants and student loans.
The conservative platform of smaller government has been exacerbated in the years following the Bush-Cheney recession, which necessitated huge investments like the bank rescue and auto-industry bailout. Opposition to what the GOP framed as an overreach of government authority became Republican dogma, and permanent talking points of the Fox News and conservative talk radio chattering classes. But their well-scripted attacks only served to mask the economic hardships that lay underneath: namely, the millions of Americans who were without jobs, on the verge of losing homes and who, without government intervention, could have well experienced Depression era-like poverty conditions.
Enter Barack Obama.
The president's $787 billion stimulus package included several expansions to existing antipoverty programs, including the Earned Income Tax Credit, SNAP and the Child Tax Credit. Obama expanded unemployment benefits to assist the long-term unemployed, and the Making Work Pay tax credit kept 6.9 million people above the poverty line in 2010 and lessened poverty for 32 million more.
President Obama's Affordable Care Act increases Medicaid coverage to all adults with incomes up to 133 percent of the poverty level and will cover an additional 16 million people by 2019 -- all of whom would have never qualified for Medicaid previously. Obama's administration has also invested in education programs benefiting poor and low-income families by expanding the Head Start initiative to reach an additional 64,000 children, and doubled funding for Federal Pell Grants to college students.
As the fiscal cliff -- which would slash funding to all of these programs by half -- looms, President Obama is finally exhibiting the strength and defiance for which many progressives had been waiting. In his first press conference after winning re-election, the president declared, "I've got a mandate. I've got a mandate to help middle-class families and families that are working hard to try to get into the middle class. That's my mandate. That's what the American people said. They said, work really hard to help us."
Critics such as Cornel West and Tavis Smiley have falsely claimed Obama wasn't focused enough on the crisis of poverty, especially in the African-American community. Obama's record proves otherwise. What may be a more fair critique is that the president has been reticent to discuss "poverty" and "the poor" as much as he has addressed "the middle-class" and "small business owners."
Even Obama's nuanced mention of those "working hard to try to get into the middle class" reflects an American mindset that is both dangerous and detrimental: the idea that real poverty -- in its worst forms, at least -- doesn't actually exist here. Politicians have developed new ways to talk about the poor without referring to them as such -- always careful not to insult. Except, of course, Romney, whose lack of tact may have been his undoing.
So what now?
Census data from 2012 shows that 97.3 million Americans fall into the category defined as low-income -- roughly less than $45,000 a year for a family of four -- and 49.1 million live below the poverty line. Together that accounts for 146.1 million people, or 48 percent of the entire U.S. population. Broken down by race and ethnicity, Hispanics were the most likely to be poor or low-income, at 73 percent, followed by African-Americans, Asians and whites.
Pretending the problem doesn't exist simply won't do.
Income inequality is at all-time high, and IRS data shows the top 1 percent of families garnered 93 percent of income gains in 2009 and 2010. Meanwhile corporate profits soared but average wage incomes declined. Republicans decried Obama's plan as a "redistribution of wealth," but voters clearly didn't buy it. President Obama's second-term agenda and the stature he displayed in last week's press conference are emboldened by a re-election victory that saw him lead Romney by a 3 million-plus popular vote advantage.
NPR's Frank James points out that elections have consequences -- which include exit polls. More than 60 percent of voters agreed with Obama's plan to increase taxes on the wealthy, and the president himself acknowledged this support came from many who did not vote for him. Exit polls also showed 55 percent of voters believe the economy favors the rich, and 53 percent said Romney's proposals would disproportionately favor the wealthy. Obama's campaign message won out: Assist those in need, and ask people at the top "to pay their fair share."
The political capital Obama garnered with his re-election could quickly dissipate, making the fiscal-cliff negotiations key in setting the tone and rebalancing the power dynamic in his favor. Soon the political discourse could shift toward Republican talking points, the Benghazi 9/11 attack or the Israeli-Gaza conflict.
For a second-term president concerned about fulfilling promises as well as securing a legacy, Obama can't afford to ignore the mandate he was so decisively given. Helping those at the bottom needs to be at the top of his list.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.