“More people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history,” Gingrich says in the video, set to soaring music. “I’m going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job and learn someday to own the job.”
To his supporters, his statement captures his appeal as a politician — his rhetorical skills and willingness to tackle politically tricky issues.
But his critics see something more sinister in his language as he seeks to regain lost ground in South Carolina, where strains of racial antipathy linger and where candidates have sometimes resorted to racially charged attacks to gain favor.
“It’s no secret that Gingrich is fighting for his political life,” said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “In a craven effort to regain his relevance, he’s turned to subtle but age-old tactics of racial invective to feed his base.”
By using the term “food stamp president,” Henderson said, Gingrich is evoking a stereotype similar to that of the “welfare queen,” a term used in the latter part of the 20th century to conjure images of a black single mother on welfare, without specifically mentioning gender or race.
In the debate, Gingrich said bluntly that he sees no reason his comments should be taken as insulting to poor people or blacks. And his supporters say he is simply offering creative policy prescriptions to address the nation’s ills.
“To hear him speak is a breath of fresh air because . . . he says it straight up,” said Dianne Belsom, a tea party activist in South Carolina who has endorsed Gingrich’s candidacy and who attended the debate.
She said the audience rose in support of Gingrich on Monday because people were unhappy that the moderator, Fox News journalist Juan Williams, raised the specter of race. “This whole campaign is not about race,” Belsom said. “It’s about saving this country.”
For months, Gingrich has been racheting up his attacks on Obama’s handling of the economy, arguing that the president is fostering an underclass that is dependent on the government. He has asserted that the country needs bold ideas — for example, putting poor children to work in schools.
He has cited the New York City schools, where he alleges that a janitor can earn more than some teachers. By employing students to do “light janitorial work,” he says, the students could learn a work ethic and earn a little money.