The President and Poverty: Beyond the Sound Bite

Earlier this week, President Obama took the stage with two prominent conservatives: Harvard professor Robert Putnam and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. It was for a panel on combating poverty, as part of a bipartisan Poverty Summit hosted by Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life and the National Association of Evangelicals. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne moderated the conversation.

To many who work on or cover issues related to poverty, this was a momentous gathering. It brought together elected officials, community leaders, the faith community, and others to explore big questions related to the economic and social costs of poverty in the U.S.

Many journalists who covered the Summit, including Bloomberg’s Melinda Hennenberger, referenced the discussion as an unusual moment in American politics and, in Hennenberger’s words, a “pleasant disorientation” to have both parties talking about income inequality. The Christian Science Monitor’s headline simply asked: “Is the conversation shifting from whether to help poor to how?”

And yet, for all that was discussed on that Summit stage, it is interesting that one of the President’s “stickiest” sound bites wasn’t about bridging gaps or income equality, but about his own experience growing up without a father.

“I am a black man who grew up without a father, and I know the cost that I paid for that,” Obama said. “And I also know that I have the capacity to break that cycle. And as a consequence, I think my daughters are better off.”

According to those in the room, that statement was actually quite disconnected from the rest of his remarks, and not intended to be one of his central points. Even he “quickly added” that family dysfunction and social ills are no excuse for withholding public investment by the government.

One of our favorite phrases at C.Fox is Frank Luntz’s famous line: “it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.” This was clearly another example of that truth. For as much as President Obama focused on the issue, the sound bite that stuck was one that few in the room?probably including him?would have expected.

In delivering a speech, conducting an interview, or participating on a panel, it’s hard to predict what messages will stick with those in the audience. Even the most well-practiced messengers have some of their best sound bites fall to the editing floor in favor of others. The key is to control what you can?to stay focused on stories and sound bites that reinforce the real point, vs. detract from it. And, from the perspective of the news consumer, examples like this are a good reminder that the whole story is rarely found in a single sound bite.