Keneisha Smith (left), 17, from Lexington Mississippi and Tammy Santiago, 21, from Northeastern University, talk about poverty with Tavis Smiley. (Hamil R. Harris/The Washington Post )

President Barack Obama’s second term hasn’t begun yet, but the ideological debate is already going strong on whether the president is sufficiently committed to ending poverty in the nation.

 Charging that Obama should receive a “D” when it comes to leading the effort to help the poor, PBS host Tavis Smiley convened a panel of experts Thursday at George Washington University entitled “A Future Without Poverty.”

 “The president needs to be pro-active, and that is why we are asking him to start his second term by delivering to the nation a major public policy speech on the eradication of poverty,” Smiley said. “Tell us how we can reduce and eradicate poverty in this country.”

From Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), the new chairwoman of the  Congressional Black Caucus, to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Smiley assembled leaders on both sides of a widening political gulf to discuss the issue.

The Rev. Al Sharpton was not on the stage at GWU on Thursday, but he hosted a luncheon Tuesday in the District to honor Martin Luther King’s actual birthday, Jan. 15. At the event, White House officials, business leaders and Martin Luther King III articulated their views of how to fulfill King’s vision to eradicating poverty.

“The president addressed the issue of poverty and the working class during the election,” said  Sharpton, standing up for the president, in contrast to Smiley, who has become a vocal critic of Obama.

 “This president has been working, but you have to judge somebody on what they are able to do against an impossible situation,” Sharpton said at his luncheon. “We need to be about results and not just rhetoric. We have to challenge corporations to provide jobs, and that is what we did at the luncheon this week.”

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