Recently, Ralph Nader, America’s most prominent consumer advocate and corporate antagonist, and Cornel West, noted Harvard University professor, joined forces in search of a progressive liberal to challenge President Barack Obama during the Democratic primaries. Mr. Nader argues that by fielding a progressive candidate, he hopes to have Mr. Obama engage in a dialogue that includes issues that the far left are concerned about; issues that up to this point are being ignored by Mr. Obama’s centrist tendencies and apparent catering to the Republican Party.
Professor West, who campaigned for Mr. Obama in 2008, has not held back his displeasure with the President’s economic policies. He has been more vocal than other members of black leadership about concerns Mr. Obama is not standing up to the GOP, or crafting policies that go toward changing black America’s economic plight.
In short, Professor West has not gotten the change he’d hoped for.
In response to the perception of inaction on the part of the Obama administration, Professor West joined with political commentator Tavis Smiley to produce The Poverty Tour. The Tour is, according to the initiative’s website:
“[A] road trip to highlight the plight of the poor people of all races, colors, and creeds so they will not be forgotten, ignored, or rendered invisible during this difficult and dangerous time of economic deprivation and political cowardice.”
Mr. Smiley pointed out during a commentary for CBS that at the base of the poverty problem in America is “political cowardice.” Not once, according to Mr. Smiley, did either Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, or then Senator Barack Obama, mention the word poverty in either of their three debates.
If we take Mr. Smiley’s argument that political cowardice lays at the heart of problem of poverty, the oversight on the part of the candidates then only compounded the problem that the poor lack a powerful voice to advocate on their behalf.
One in six Americans, 15.1%, live in poverty, according to the Census Bureau. There may be no relief in sight, at least in the short or immediate term if the forecasts of the Federal Reserve are correct. The nation’s central bank expects growth not to exceed 2% for the rest of the year.
In addition, the United States is not adding enough jobs to whittle down the unemployment rate to the historic normal rate of unemployment, which lies between four and six percent. The economy needs to add approximately 150,000 jobs a month to absorb the natural growth of the labor force, but given last month’s employment report showing that no jobs were added in the month of August, hopes for a normal recovery are seriously questioned.
Notwithstanding what some in the black community are viewing as a manifestation of a personal beef with Mr. Obama, what impact on the black American political economy specifically, and the national political economy on a whole does the Poverty Tour have?
Other than a very valid and noble tug on the heartstrings, not much at all.
The tour, while reminiscent of the late Senator Robert Kennedy’s tour of Appalachia during his 1968 presidential campaign, offers nothing in terms of effective policy. Mostly rhetorical in its description of the plight of black America and laden with the scathing vitriol that would make even Charles Krauthammer smile, the tour offers no practical recommendations for problem solvers to hang their hats on.
For example, most businesses, whether large or small, take the position that hiring is being hampered by a lack of demand for goods and services. If consumers are not buying, businesses are not generating the revenue necessary to hire labor.
Yes, Smiley and West’s purpose for the tour is to raise awareness that an unacceptable number of Americans are not only out of work, but living in poverty. But is the mere raising of consciousness enough? Consciousness doesn’t increase consumer demand. Consciousness does not translate in business revenues and profits. Consciousness does not open global markets, which leads to increased trade internationally, and job growth domestically.
While his domestic policy framework has been mostly ineffective, Mr. Obama‘s stimulus package has led to increased broadband deployment in insular, rural, and urban areas. His affordable health care act has increased funding for education in the medical and nursing fields, while keeping children on their parents insurance plans until the age of 26. His December 2010 tax cut negotiations with the GOP led to extensions of unemployment benefits.
Policy wise, Mr. Obama has done a lot more than what West and Smiley credit him for. Ironically, what is most telling of the Poverty Tour’s maturity is its lack of it, particularly when it comes to expressing the true role of government during an economic downturn. The responsibility for managing the economy falls not solely on the shoulders of the President. It is a joint venture of the Congress and the Executive branch. While Congress has delegated most of its duties for regulating the economy to the Executive branch, it is the national legislature who is primarily responsible for priming the economy’s pump.
Yet Smiley and West focus like a laser beam on Mr. Obama. Frankly, Mr. Obama brought a lot of this on himself during his campaign as he spouted the message of hope and change. He brought too much on himself, more than what he allegedly inherited from the prior administration.
But this does not give Smile and West a free pass to use a hollow poverty tour as an instrument to further confuse and mis-educate an electorate that apparently believes that one person, in a political and economic system built on 235 years of rules, will somehow bring about change that we can believe in, much less increased employment in an economy suffering from severe structural unemployment?
It may be time for Smiley, West, and yes, President Obama, to go back up the mountain and come up with a different sermon.