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Smiley and West take Obama critique on the road

Jesse Washington

Black activists Cornel West and Tavis Smiley are planning a 15-city “Poverty Tour” to bring attention to the needy and to what they say are the failings of President Barack Obama.

West, a Princeton University professor, and Smiley, host of a TV talk show, expect to begin the bus trip Aug. 5 at a Native American reservation in Wisconsin. With visits to soup kitchens, housing projects, farms, families and low-wage workers, they say they hope to create momentum for large-scale job creation programs and put poverty on the 2012 election agenda.

Smiley said that as budgets are cut in Washington, “poor people are being rendered invisible.” Obama and Congress must pay more attention, he said.

“It’s not just about the president,” Smiley said. “Having said this, it would be nice to hear the president say the word ‘poor.’ To say the word ‘poverty.’ We get conversations about the middle class. Well, the new poor are the former middle class. But we can’t get this president or any leaders to say the words ‘poor’ or ‘poverty,’ much less do anything about it.”

Although their tour does not have a specific racial focus, “you can’t ignore that black people are catching the most hell in this recession,” Smiley said.

Kevin Lewis, a White House spokesman, said the administration has several programs to create jobs in underserved communities, such as the Urban Entrepreneurship Forum and Minority Business Development Agency. “Reducing unemployment for all Americans, which disproportionately burdens the African American community, remains a priority for the president and his administration,” Lewis said.

Smiley and West, who also co-host a radio show, have been persistent and harsh critics of Obama, saying he has prioritized Wall Street and big corporations at the expense of the poor and working class. “That’s why I feel profoundly disappointed and in some sense betrayed,” said West, who campaigned for Obama in 2008.

Their criticism has drawn scorn from a wide swath of African Americans who are protective of the country’s first black president and believe Obama would alienate essential white voters by focusing on black problems. Some also believe Smiley and West are motivated by personal issues such as invitations declined, calls unreturned, or inauguration tickets not provided by Obama.

In an interview with Obama that aired Friday on NPR, host Michel Martin mentioned West’s labeling of the president as a “black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs,” and she asked Obama if he has a special responsibility to look out for black people.

“I have a special responsibility to look out for the interests of every American,” Obama responded. “That’s my job as President of the United States. I wake up every morning trying to promote the kind of policies that are going to make the biggest difference for the most number of people.”

Obama also discussed protecting “the core commitments that we make to the most vulnerable” in the deficit-cutting talks.

In 2008, the huge turnout of black voters was crucial to Obama’s election. There is no indication that they are abandoning him now, and polls do not offer evidence that dissatisfaction is growing.

Yet Warren Ballentine, a nationally syndicated black talk radio host, senses a rising discontent among his listeners.

“Black folks expected him to fix the problem,” he said. “The problem is lack of jobs and opportunity in poor communities in this country. They’re blaming the president for not having jobs, but they don’t want Tavis or Cornel or anyone else to attack the president because they didn’t have jobs before the president came into office.”

“They believed that because the president was one of them, he would understand how to create jobs for them,” Ballentine said.

In the Amsterdam News, a black newspaper in New York City, columnist Jonathan Hicks recently wrote of an “undeniable schism … within the minds and hearts of many African Americans.”

“There is a deep sense of pride in the historic accomplishment of Obama’s presidency, and a recognition that it remains, to many, nothing short of a miracle. More than anything, we want him to succeed. Yet, there are aspects to his presidency that cause us to pause,” Hicks wrote. “There is little rhetoric from Obama – let alone action – that is aimed at alleviating the stubborn, unrelenting crisis of unemployment.”

Mary Frances Berry, a University of Pennsylvania history professor and former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said she has noticed more black frustration with Obama “in the barbershop, on the street with people. And among my own relatives.”

“Everybody likes Obama in the African American community,” Berry said. “But when they see the unemployment numbers, they have friends and relatives getting put out in the street, they don’t have jobs and can’t find jobs, everyone starts trying to make excuses — Obama can’t do anything by himself, he can’t get Congress to go along.”

“But after they say that over and over again and it gets worse – and it is getting worse – you get some mumblings and grumblings.”

On their bus trip, Smiley and West will travel through Hayward, Eau Claire and Madison, Wisconsin; Milwaukee; Chicago’s South Side; Joliet and Pembroke, Illinois; Lima, Ohio; Charleston, West Virginia; Washington, D.C.; Atlanta; Birmingham, Alabama; Columbus and Clarksdale, Mississippi; and finish in Memphis.

Associated Press