Romney, the “Very Poor,” and American Identity

By now, Mitt Romney’s latest interview gaffe, in which an offhand remark (well, not so offhand, see below) reveals a potential lack of empathy with regard to impoverished Americans and public policy on poverty, has captured this week’s media cycle and crackled across the blogosphere.  While you may well be familiar with this story, check out what is said, and how it is said, again — because there seems to be something a bit deeper here in Romney’s language that the media coverage of this episode seems to underplay.


In particular, for me the key is in the phrasing right before and after the now infamous soundbite.

First, let’s remind ourselves of his precise language:

By the way, I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there, and if it needs repair I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich, they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the 90-95% of Americans who are right now struggling. . . . We will hear from the Democrat party, the plight of the poor…. You can focus on the very poor, that’s not my focus…. The middle income Americans, they’re the folks that are really struggling right now and they need someone that can help get this economy going for them.

Now, it is important to note that this is not the first time Romney has made such an observation. Ever the vigilant observer of political media content, Eric Ostermeier of Smart Politics, the political blog sponsored by the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, caught an earlier public statement by Romney that is nearly identical. In a debate at Dartmouth College on October 11, in advance of the New Hampshire primary, Romney said the following (with the key part emphasized):

Not only do we have 25 million people out of work, or stopped looking for work, or part-time jobs needing full-time employ, we just saw this week that median income in America has declined by 10 percent during the Obama years. People are having a hard time making ends meet. And so if I’m going to use precious dollars to reduce taxes, I want to focus on where the people are hurting the most, and that’s the middle class. I’m not worried about rich people. They are doing just fine. The very poor have a safety net, they’re taken care of. But the people in the middle, the hard-working Americans, are the people who need a break, and that is why I focused my tax cut right there.”

So, as Ostermeier correctly points out, “the fact that Romney has repeated this message on at least two occasions (and perhaps more on the campaign trail), suggests his choice of words was not an accident – it’s part of his campaign rhetoric.” It’s a soundbite from planned campaign discourse, not a gaffe. Later that same day, Romney tried to roll the statement back:

Sometimes things don’t come out exactly the way you’d like them to . . . That’s not exactly what I meant to say. My focus is on middle income Americans. We do have a safety net for the very poor, and I said if there are holes in it I want to correct that.

So, as we continue to observe the fallout from this episode, it will be interesting to see if Romney continues characterizing this statement as a “misspeak” to roll it back… because it’s not.

[Update: The Washington Post has reported just that, not long after our original post.]

Bear in mind, this is not a partisan take — this is an objective observation based on typical patterns of campaign rhetoric that all politicians use: crystallize your message into media-ready and easy-to-remember-without-teleprompters soundbites, and then repeat them when answering questions and speaking extemporaneously to stay on message. As I tell my students, anything a public figure says repeatedly needs attention, because it was likely intentional, or else it at least reveals a deeper set of underlying assumptions.

But we still aren’t at the part that I find troubling. The media coverage of this story, including the CNN web story accompanying the video above, starts the quotation as Ostermeier does on his blog: with “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” This statement, itself suggesting a lack of empathy, is connected to his description of a “safety net” that covers them.” His argument suggests that, while public policy attends to the needs of the very poor, the “middle income Americans: are the ones who are “really struggling.” Now, the maximum income to be considered “poor” is $22,350 for a family of four,  US median household income from 2006 to 2010 was over twice that at $51,914, and during that same period nearly 14% of Americans were below the poverty level (making Romney’s assumption about “90 to 95% of Americans” being middle income factually inaccurate). Many are making the argument that Romney is perhaps out of touch with the true plight of the poor and the insufficiencies of the safety net. Certainly Romney’s comment that “the plight of the poor” is something that “we will hear from the Democrat party” at least suggests that a policy focus on this social problem is a choice of partisan politics, not of deliberate public policy.

But that’s still not what concerns me the most. Remember I said that the media coverage has started with the “I’m not concerned about the very poor” soundbite. Go back to the October debate excerpt, the CNN interview, and Romney’s explanation of it.  Check out how this discussion is framed by Romney:

The very poor have a safety net, they’re taken care of. But the people in the middle, the hard-working Americans, are the people who need a break.

By the way, I’m in this race because I care about Americans.

I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the 90-95% of Americans who are right now struggling.

The middle income Americans, they’re the folks that are really struggling right now and they need someone that can help get this economy going for them.

My focus is on middle income Americans. We do have a safety net for the very poor…

Consistently, Romney refers to the working middle class as Americans, while he implicitly marginalizes the “very poor” (and, to be fair, the “very rich”) as outside of that identifier. 

Rhetorical critic Edwin Black constructed a theory for the ethical evaluation of ideological rhetoric known as the “second persona.” In simple terms, public persuaders, in order to reach their audience, needs to establish a sense of ethos (character and credibility, such that they may be trusted by their audience. As they do so by constructing a “first persona,” or an ideal character for themselves offered to their audience, they by necessity construct a “second persona,” an ideal character that the audience is invited to accept for themselves. The relationship between the first and second personae constitutes an ideological community of shared beliefs, values, assumptions, priorities, and so on.  Obviously, the construction of an ideal “American people” (discussed elsewhere by folks like Michael McGee) is a mainstay of American political rhetoric, especially during campaign season.

So, based on these rhetorical fragments, Romney’s second persona — the ideal “Americans” — are described thusly:

  • “middle class” / “middle income”
  • “people in the middle” [between the "very poor" and the "very rich"]
  • “hard-working”
  • “90-95%”
  • “the heart of America”
  • “who are (really) struggling right now” / “hurting the most” / “needing a break”

So, Romney’s ideal “American” people are the hard-working middle class, the vast majority of the population, who are the real victims of the current economy.

As well, Romney’s first person is described like this:

  • “I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. . . . I’m not concerned about the very rich.”
  • “I’m concerned about the very heart of America.”
  • “my focus” / “I want to focus on where Americans are hurting the most.”
  • “if there are holes in the safety net . . . I want to correct that.”
So, as constructed, Romney is promoting his leadership persona as (a) “focused” — he prioritizes and directs his energies in particular directions, (b) focused on “Americans”, about whom he “care[s]” and is “concerned”, and (c) will act on policy areas that are flawed, but ultimately is “not concerned” about areas privileged as a “focus” area. Taken together, Romney clearly — again, not a partisan analysis, but an objective discourse analysis — prioritizes the working middle class, who constitute the “heart of America,” the real America.
Rhetorical critic Philip Wander added to Black’s theory by introducing the “third persona,” those persons and groups who are omitted, excluded, or otherwise marginalized from the community constituted by the first and second personae. While the deductive logic which follows is too cute, of course, but it is a real implication of Romney’s (at least twice, over a period of three months) stated position:
  • Romney is concerned about “Americans”;
  • Romney is not concerned about the “very poor” (and the “very rich”);
  • Therefore, Romney is rhetorically separating the “very poor” (and the “very rich”) from the ranks of “Americans.”
Now, if you are a member of the “very rich” population, you may have less reason for concern: you know that Romney is among your ranks as well, and therefore his “lack of concern” is hyperbolic. But if you are a member of the “very poor” population, or are engaged in their concerns, this is a troubling ideological construction. Indeed, if you are one of the 10 million families (that includes 45 million people, including 22 million children) among the ranks of the poor who are employed, and work hard, this construction is not only insulting, but flies in the ranks of reality. Such a problem might also attach to the 43% of Americans who, according to a recent study, are “liquid-asset poor”: employed and currently not poor, but are one crisis away from being impoverished within three months.
It’s important to note that the marginalization of the poor as different from the dominant second persona of “working middle-class American families” is by no means restricted to political conservatives. Indeed, the privileging of  “working middle-class American families” as a focus of public rhetoric and domestic policy initiatives (e.g., tax breaks and credits to boost purchasing power and fuel the consumer economy) was a huge part of Bill Clinton’s “New Democrat” centrism. Historian Sean Wilentz observed about Clinton’s 1992 campaign announcement address (emphasis added),
Clinton’s announcement speech referred to the middle class, in one way or another, no fewer than eight times, as the core constituency of his new social contract, although the speech sometimes elided middle class and working class. “We’ve got to fight for hard working middle-class Americans for a change,” Clinton said toward the beginning. Then, toward he end, he declared, “We’ll put government back on the side of the working-class families of America who so often think that most of the help goes to those at the top of the ladder, some of it goes to the bottom, and nobody stands up for them.” But he meant the same in both instances.
Note the similarities between Clinton’s statement and Romney’s regarding the unique plight of the “middle class.”  This rhetorical move is also consistent with Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign rhetoric and his presidency to date.
Right now, we face an immediate economic emergency that requires urgent action. We can’t wait to help workers and families and communities who are struggling right now – who don’t know if their job or their retirement will be there tomorrow; who don’t know if next week’s paycheck will cover this month’s bills. We need to pass an economic rescue plan for the middle-class and we need to do it now. Today I’m proposing a number of steps that we should take immediately to stabilize our financial system, provide relief to families and communities, and help struggling homeowners. It’s a plan that begins with one word that’s on everyone’s mind, and it’s spelled J-O-B-S.
Incendiary rhetoric to the contrary, Obama’s statements and policies privileging “middle class families” are far more consistent with the dominant definition of “real Americans” than the “European-style socialist welfare state” that has been attached to him by his opponents.
This is especially the case in an election year, of course, when smart rhetoric will target the single largest group of American voters. What makes defining “Americans” as “middle class” especially strategic involves two connected ideas. First, the “middle class” is itself a symbolic construction, and an ambiguous one at that. Who belongs to the “middle class,” and who doesn’t? Who gets to set the definition? Essentially, it can only be defined by what it’s not: the “very poor” and the “very rich.” From‘s article on this point:

Public opinion polls show how slippery the term can be. An Oct. 2007 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Harvard School of Public Health and National Public Radio asked 1,527 adults what income level makes a family of four middle class. About 60 percent said  a family earning $50,000 or $60,000 fit that description. But 42 percent answered an income of $40,000 and 48 percent said $80,000 were both middle class.

Other polls suggest that 90 percent or more of Americans consider themselves to be “middle class” or “upper-middle class” or “working class.” An April 2007 poll by CBS News found that of 994 adults surveyed only 2 percent said they were “upper class,” and 7 percent said they were “lower class.” In another poll, taken by Gallup/USA Today in May 2006, 1 percent said they were “upper class,” and 6 percent said they were “lower class.” Interestingly, since 12.3 percent of Americans were living below the official federal poverty level  in 2006, these poll findings suggest many who are officially poor still consider themselves to be “middle class” or “working class.”

So what do politicians mean when they say “the middle class”? Good question. Each politician may be talking about a different group of Americans, but the message many voters hear is that the politician is talking about them.

This leads to the second rhetorical advantage of this move: the “middle class” is a core constitutive symbol that contributes to the nation’s libertarian/egalitarian ideology: As opposed to the political economy of feudal monarchy from which we departed in centuries past, ours is a nation defined by freedom, equality of opportunity, and a Protestant work ethic feeding into entrepreneurial capitalism, leading to innovation and an inherently upwardly mobile population of working families. Everyone wants to be prosperous, but no one wants to be “upper class” (at least not by public proclamation). Hence, a “middle class” to which nearly everyone identifies — excepting, perhaps, the “very poor,” who are likely quite cognizant of their have-not status.
So, while Mitt Romney will take some short-term heat for this gaffe-but-not-really-a-gaffe, the bigger lesson may be in how this episode brings into relief the regular ways in which American political rhetoric systematically marginalizes the poor as, somehow, a bit less than fully ideally “American.”



  1. Bruce Bufe says:

    Analysis of Rommney’s “gaffe” was most helpful. I would like to add another point for our analysis of Rommney’s comment. He says, “We have a safety net for the poor.” But do we really? He then says, “If it needs repair….” Does heknow or not? I have gathered from Bitzer’s chapter that in analyzing rhetoric, we must also look for the speaker’s evidence,supporting data, research, and illustrative examples. In Rommney’s comment there is no substantiation of his assertions about a safety net. What seems most glaring to me is how all the political candidates make sweeping generalizations, broad abstract statements without a sliver of backup proof to support their comments. And they are allowed to get by with this. Therefore, we must educate young people currently in school to spot a speaker’s disregard for supporting his or her assertions. Such “rhetoric” seems to get a free pass in political campaigns but wouldn’t be allowed in written and evaluated discourse. Bruce

    • stephenklien says:

      What was refreshing in this episode was that CNN reporter Soledad O’Brien actually asked a follow-up question that pressed him on his comment — although there was no follow-up on the “safety net” claim. But even this was enough to cause a reaction from The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart.

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