Don’t judge Dr. Cornel West’s most recent verbal assault on President Barack Obama against the backdrop of his endowed chair at Princeton, his frequent and perplexing appearances on popular talk shows, his Matrix cameo or his quixotic foray into rap.
Don’t even judge him as the president’s highest-profile critic among the black intelligentsia — though he surely considers it his job to speak truth to power, even when that power is black. After all, West’s anti-Obama broadsides don’t really represent the views of mainstream African America.
Judge West’s attack as the poorly timed critique of a left-wing elite still frustrated that Obama — love child of a Midwestern hippie mom and a bespectacled, Kenyan exchange-student dad — isn’t the up-with-people movement leader they thought he’d turn out to be, despite all signs to the contrary.
Doubling down on the “black mascot” theme he introduced in his memorable on-air standoff with the Rev. Al Sharpton last month, this week West told Truthdig’s Chris Hedges that he now views Obama as “a kind of black face of the DLC” who “has a certain fear of free black men.”
It’s a shot that, according to the Nation’s Melissa Harris-Perry, betrays the personal nature of his attack. West, she writes, represents the “delicate ego of the self-appointed black leadership class that has been largely supplanted in recent years.” It’s also an Uncle Tom bomb, dropped in the most highfalutin, Ivy League sort of way. As the American Prospect’s Adam Serwer observes, “West severs Obama from any individual claim to blackness while inviting him to accept the terms of an implicit contract by which his lost negritude might be restored.”
But West’s attack is also of a piece with Baroness Lynn Forester de Rothschild’s petulant departure from the Democratic tent to endorse Sen. John McCain after Obama defeated then-Sen. Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic race. Mainly, it’s about West not getting what he wanted.
While rank-and-file liberals and moderates continue to hold Obama in high regard, chunks of the “professional left” still bristle at Obama’s centrism. They feel sold out by his compromises on Guantánamo, banks and health care — and flatly reject his pursuit of the Afghanistan War.
Yet it’s hard to explain why West, who supported Obama’s candidacy, wasn’t paying closer attention to what Obama the candidate had to say. During his campaign, the president’s policies were either expressly stated or strongly implied. And almost none of them have changed.
West decries Obama’s leadership of “the American killing machine” but can’t say why, then, he supported Obama — who couldn’t have made his position any clearer than he did in his second debate with McCain, saying: “Part of the reason I think it’s so important for us to end the war in Iraq is to be able to get more troops into Afghanistan.”
On health care, West might be holding out for a bolder legislative solution, but even after Obama and Democrats put forth a recycled Republican plan from the 1990s — the individual mandate that Obama opposed in 2008 — it still took everything they had to get it passed in Congress.
And it’s hard to argue with West when he points out that “tea party folk are right when they say the government is corrupt.” But he’s wrong when he says that Obama “could have nipped in the bud the right-wing populism of the tea party folk” by focusing “on homeowners rather than investment banks for bailouts.” If Obama hadn’t backed TARP as a senator and then carried it out as president, he’d have taken office just as the financial sector was spiraling down the drain — and as it sucked ordinary folks’ 401(k)s down with it.
Still, if there’s one place where West can feel justifiably aggrieved, it’s the president’s broken campaign promise to shut down military detention at Guantánamo Bay. But if there’s one thing that’s been established during his tenure, it’s that on any deal, Obama will take half a loaf over none at all. When it came to terror suspects, he declared an end to torture but couldn’t find a way to close the dungeon.
No one on the left — including West — has to be satisfied with the president’s performance. For starters, Obama’s not even really on the left. But to perpetuate the notion — shared, not coincidentally, by Obama’s most fervent right-wing detractors — that he’s a closet socialist who’s only toeing the Middle American line because he “lacks backbone” doesn’t make sense. It’s also not befitting West — a thinker whose life’s work contributed to making Obama’s presidency possible.
If there’s one thing West stands for, it’s the proposition that people from all walks of life have a stake in the American endeavor. So he should be the first one to recognize the first black president’s defining trait: Obama is no revolutionary — and he never was.
He’s a politician. Just like every other president.