The hall, over a century old, was beautiful. On the stage, four chairs. Next to each chair was a glass of water, though only one glass was covered. That glass, and the chair next to it, would be used by the president of the United States during the panel discussion that was set to occur in just a few minutes. No one in the crowd knew quite what to expect. The leader of the free world, the commander-in-chief of the United States military, participating in a 90-minute panel discussion during a policy conference on overcoming poverty? Not the usual setting and environment for a president, to say the least. But through the curtain President Obama appeared, taking his seat on the Georgetown University panel, along with Harvard professor Robert Putnam and American Enterprise Institute president (and my boss) Arthur Brooks.

The conversation that followed was a hit, with much wisdom from both sides of the political divide.

The president, stipulating that “the best antipoverty program is a job,” argued that work “confers not just income, but structure and dignity and a sense of connection to community.” The president is right to follow the word job with the word dignity.

I don’t like the phrase “dead-end job.” As a society, we are too quick to think of many jobs as “bad.” This is not to say that some jobs aren’t really unpleasant. And it’s not to pretend that some workers aren’t suffering real abuse. They are, and that is intolerable. But when we talk about “dead-end jobs,” we mean the former, not just the latter.

Our national character would improve if we followed the president’s lead and thought of a job as providing dignity along with a paycheck. If we changed the way we think and talk about those jobs, fully conscious that they give much to the worker in addition to a paycheck — a way to contribute to their community, friends and colleagues, a sense of purpose — then we might see more people willing to take the first step on the employment ladder, and those climbing the ladder might feel a little better about how things are going. And that would be very good indeed.

Later in the conversation, the president argued that we need to spend more money to overcome poverty. Brooks responded that the money we currently spend on middle-class entitlement programs is a major obstacle to spending more on the poor.

There’s a lot to be said for this answer. The federal government spent about 20 percent of national income last year. In 2039, spending is projected to rise to about 26 percent. That’s a huge increase. Social Security spending is projected to account for 1.4 percentage points of the increase. Medicare spending projected to increase by 1.6 percentage points.

These very large projected increases properly concern many conservatives. They do not warmly invite conservatives to discuss increasing spending of any kind, no matter its merit. It is much more likely that conservatives would be amenable to increasing spending on some anti-poverty programs if the increase were combined with (larger) cuts in spending that would otherwise go to well-off seniors.

The president and the panel moderator, The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne Jr., joked a few times to the effect that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wouldn’t be interested in watching this panel on overcoming poverty. Brooks’s response: “We have to be really careful not to impugn their motives.” “Ad hominem,” said Brooks, “is something we should declare war on and defeat.”


Not everyone has good motives — especially in politics. And attacking motives has its place in some circumstances. But in our day-to-day politics, it is a barrier standing in the way of real debate and real progress. Both the left and the right are guilty of it. The most powerful in their ranks should not be.

It is a tribute to the president’s desire to engage that he chose to sit on a panel at a policy conference. The format suited him well — much better than the heavily choreographed presidential debates, with 30 seconds here and 90 seconds there. There were powerful moments: “I am a black man who grew up without a father and I know the cost that I paid for that.”

The traditionalist in me was unsettled by watching the head of state engage in a back-and-forth with two scholars, sitting on a stage. At the same time, the republican in me — lowercase r — found it exhilarating. When the head of government is the head of state, such collisions are occasionally inevitable. Talking is good. Action is better. I hope we see more done to help the poor before the president leaves the stage for good.