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Cornel West & Tavis Smiley on Obama: "Many of Us Are Exploring Other Possibilities in Coming Election”

StoryAugust 09, 2011
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We speak with veteran journalist Tavis Smiley and Princeton University Professor Cornel West about President Barack Obama and the 2012 elections. "He’s rightly associated much more with the oligarchs than with poor people," says West. Adds Smiley, "I don’t think the President would be hurt, necessarily—the country certainly would not be hurt—by a primary challenge that would refocus him on what really matters. It would refocus him on what’s happening to too many people in this country. It would refocus him on a more progressive agenda." [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found 86 percent of African Americans expressed approval of the job President Obama is doing, even as support for him has slipped among other groups. This is from the Washington Post. The view is nuanced, though: "Among blacks, approval of the president’s economic policies has weakened, with only 54 percent saying the policies have made the economy better compared with 77 percent in October." Cornel West, you have been both a supporter of Senator Obama in becoming president and a fierce critic. These polls are shifting, even among his hugest support group. What about what has happened, and where you think President Obama is trying to take the country, and where you think it needs to go?

CORNEL WEST: Well, I think, on the one hand, large numbers of black people rightly want to protect President Obama against the vicious right-wing attacks, the Fox News-like attacks, the lies about him being socialist, Muslim and so forth. On the other hand, the suffering intensifies. It’s very clear that President Obama caves in over and over and over again. He punts on first down. If you’re in a foxhole with him, you’re in trouble, because he wants to compromise, you want to fight. He doesn’t have the kind of backbone he ought to have. So black folk find themselves in a dilemma: how do we protect him against the right-wing attacks and at the same time keep him accountable, especially when it comes to poor and working people?

Unfortunately, Tim Geithner and his economic team have nothing to do with the legacy of Martin King, have indifference toward poor and working people. He listens to them, hence he’s rightly associated much more with the oligarchs than with poor people. We hope he changes his mind. We hope he gets a progressive economic team, even though, as you know, many of us are exploring other kinds of possibilities in the coming election, given his lukewarmness.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you exploring exactly? Are you talking about another candidate running for president?

CORNEL WEST: It would be a Bernie Sanders-like figure who is fundamentally committed to the legacy of Martin King and Fannie Lou Hamer and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dorothy Day, putting poor and working people at the center.

AMY GOODMAN: When you say Bernie Sanders-type, is Bernie Sanders considering running for president?

CORNEL WEST: Unfortunately, I don’t think so.

TAVIS SMILEY: He said he’s not.

CORNEL WEST: I wish he was, because he’s my kind of brother. But someone like that who’s got backbone and courage.

AMY GOODMAN: Tavis Smiley, would you like to see someone else run, and are you considering it yourself?

TAVIS SMILEY: That right there is the joke of the day. Actually, Dr. West has a great line about that, Amy. You should have asked him that question; he has a great line. He says, you would much sooner find him in a crack house than in the White House. That’s his response to that.

As you well know, my role on public television and public radio doesn’t put me in the realm of endorsing candidates. I have not done that. My role is to talk about accountability, to challenge folk to reexamine the assumptions they hold about the poor, to help them expand their inventory of ideas, to introduce Americans to the poor with these platforms that I have. So I’m not in the endorsing business, I’m in the accountability business. And that’s why we’re on this Poverty Tour.

But to your question, I don’t think the President would be hurt, necessarily—the country certainly would not be hurt—by a primary challenge that would refocus him on what really matters. It would refocus him on what’s happening to too many people in this country. It would refocus him on a more progressive agenda. But having said that, I think if the race were held today, the President still wins. You can’t beat somebody with nobody, and I don’t see who the somebody is that can beat the President. So, Doc and I have had many debates, and I’m sure we’re going to get right back at this debate once we get on the bus again and take off to the next city in just a few minutes on the Poverty Tour.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there.

TAVIS SMILEY: But I think that a challenge would refocus him—

AMY GOODMAN: Tavis, we’re going to have to leave it there. Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, thanks so much for joining us.

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