Why Cornel West Is Wrong About Obama

Obama's a politician, not a revolutionary. The sooner elite progressives get over it, the better.

Courtesy of News One

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.