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Obama's Most Vocal Black Critics Dial Back Attacks As Election Year Begins

Princeton professor Cornel West (right) and talk show host Tavis Smiley on Oct. 9.
Jim Ruymen
UPI /Landov
Princeton professor Cornel West (right) and talk show host Tavis Smiley on Oct. 9.

The dynamic duo of PBS host Tavis Smiley and professor/activist Cornel West was at it again in Washington Thursday evening during a live television broadcast of a program addressing poverty.

The two have made a traveling roadshow out of their roles as the loudest African-American critics of President Obama.

The forum, presented and moderated by Smiley and aired on C-SPAN, follows Smiley and West's 18-city tour last summer that called attention to the growing number of Americans in poverty, particularly blacks. During the tour, and at the original poverty forum last year, Smiley and West became lightning rods for accusing Obama of failing to adequately address problems affecting blacks.

But for 2 1/2 hours on Thursday, Smiley and West made few waves for the president. It was several other panelists who expressed their dissatisfaction with Obama, including Academy Award-winning filmmaker Michael Moore.

Moore said the president's term has "been a disappointing three years. ... He thought he would be a nice guy. He turned the other cheek. ... Right now, we don't need a nice guy. We need someone who will stand up and kick some butt for his country."

The program is scheduled to re-air on PBS's Tavis Smiley show for three straight nights, from Jan. 16 to Jan. 18.

Smiley did finally steer the panelists into questions about Obama's leadership about an hour into the program.

"Black people right now are catching hell," Smiley said. "Yet, to my mind, black people, lovingly and respectfully, are the most silent about the hell that they are catching."

Appearing to sense that another Smiley attack was coming, many in the audience began to murmur and shift in their seats. Smiley, appearing to take in the audience's rumblings, instead posed a painstakingly qualified question to one panelist:

"Now, I'm not naive about this. I understand why that is — because of our love of, our deference and support, legitimately, of Barack Hussein Obama as president and the effort to get him elected. But I do want to put this out there: What happens if we continue to be as silent as we are? I'm not saying the president has got to be demonized. I'm not saying this to cast aspersions on him; I am saying that when the people catching the most hell are enduring that in silence, it raises a question, to me, as to what the pain threshold really is for black folk."

Panelist Roger A. Clay, president of the Oakland, Calif.-based Insight Center for Community Economic Development, responded:

"I'm extremely disappointed [in Obama], more so than I ever thought I could be. I think part of the reason I'm disappointed is because I had hoped for a lot. ... Some of my hope was probably based on unrealistic expectations." The audience erupted in applause. Clay added, "But because he's black, I still have very high expectations. ... My biggest disappointment is — and it goes back to leadership — I don't see leadership on the [poverty] issue because I don't see [him] speaking out on the issue. I don't think you go around talking about race, but I do think you have to go around talking about issues that affect black people."

Since Smiley and West turned up the heat on Obama last year, many African-Americans have debated the question of how to hold the president accountable — without appearing to embolden his political enemies. At the same time, as Obama's support has dropped among nonblacks, blacks themselves remain his most loyal constituency.

Smiley and West have beaten back a constant backlash from prominent African-Americans, including the Rev. Al Sharpton and popular talk radio host Tom Joyner, for remarks they argued were needlessly divisive.

But it wasn't entirely clear how their criticism of Obama was playing among the average African-American until last week, when Smiley was dropped as the keynote speaker for an upcoming Martin Luther King holiday luncheon in Peoria, Ill.

The cancellation came in response to a handful of retired black women who wrote an op-ed letter in the local newspaper objecting to the selection of Smiley and demanding a refund of their $40-a-plate ticket. The local NAACP followed suit, as did other would-be attendees. Event organizers replaced Smiley with radio host and professor Michael Eric Dyson (who also has criticized Obama at times, though far more gently).

Smiley reportedly was to be paid $37,500 for the speech. Reacting to the snub, Smiley told Fox News on Monday that just six people complained, "trumping the entire event." He called it a "quintessential example of political correctness."

"The implication of what Tavis and Cornel West say is essentially that the president has let the black community down. We just don't agree with that," the author of the op-ed letter, Barbara Penelton, a retired professor at Bradley University, told me in an interview. "We recognize a lot of things he's wanted to do has not occurred, but that doesn't mean we withdraw our support."

"We know Tavis is concerned about the poverty rate, and we think there still is more to be done," Penelton continued. "But we have too many people who are lukewarm about voting to discourage them from continuing to support the president."

"The bottom line is I am not going to spend money to hear somebody bash the president," she said.

Stay tuned for more debate: Penelton says she has accepted an invitation to be a guest on the "Smiley & West" public radio show on Tuesday.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corey Dade is a national correspondent for the NPR Digital News team. With more than 15 years of journalism experience, he writes news analysis about federal policy, national politics, social trends, cultural issues and other topics for NPR.org.