Barack Obama's “Fight” to End Poverty: Rhetoric and Reality


  • The authors’ names appear in alphabetical order.

Direct correspondence to Richard C. Fording, Department of Political Science, University of Alabama, 303 ten Hoor Bldg, Box 870213, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487 〈〉.



In this article we examine President Barack Obama's leadership on the issue of poverty. Our analysis seeks to address three specific objectives. First, we begin by examining the Obama administration's anti-poverty efforts and their relationship with recent trends in the U.S. poverty rate. Second, we examine President Obama's rhetorical leadership on the issue of poverty, both in absolute terms and compared to other recent presidents. Compared to other recent presidents, how often has Obama talked about issues related to poverty and poor people? Third, we discuss the implications of our results for theories of presidential leadership.


We rely on a series of analyses of aggregate poverty trends, as well as content analyses of presidential weekly radio addresses.


Our analyses find that contrary to the claims of critics, although the poverty rate has risen during President Obama's first term in office, recent increases in poverty have actually been somewhat lower that what would be expected given the state of the economy. The evidence indicates that one important reason for this is the implementation of ARRA. We find considerable support for claims that President Obama has demonstrated relatively little rhetorical leadership on the issue of poverty, although the frequency with which he has emphasized issues related to poverty is not significantly different compared to past presidents.


President Obama has had some objective success in his anti-poverty efforts, but his leadership style on this issue can be characterized more as a “facilitator” rather than a “director” of change.