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Cornell West and Tavis Smiley are wrong -- Obama hasn't failed the poor

By Etan Thomas, Special to CNN
updated 2:37 PM EDT, Wed August 31, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Cornel West, Tavis Smiley critical of Obama's first term
  • Etan Thomas rejects view that Obama has failed
  • He says president has directed aid to those in need
  • Thomas: If Obama loses, the poor will get much less help

Editor's note: Editor's note: Etan Thomas is a poet and author who plays basketball for the NBA's Atlanta Hawks. He is a motivational speaker and actively supported Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. His website is etanthomas.com.

(CNN) -- I have the utmost respect for Dr. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley. Their accomplishments are vast. Dr. West, an academic philosopher at Princeton University, has for decades spoken up for the poor.

Tavis Smiley, talk show host and author, has always used his platform to discuss the issues of the black community and the country as a whole.

President Obama said during the 2008 campaign that we should be able to disagree without being disagreeable. That is a simple injunction that many in politics do not follow.

That said, I respectfully disagree with West and Smiley's characterization of President Obama's first term in office. West has simply described it as a failure, and referred to the president as "the black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs," and the "head of the American killing machine." Smiley has accused the president of ignoring the issues of the black community. The two held a 16-city "Poverty Tour" earlier this month, during which they aired their complaints about Obama.

To hear them tell it, one would think that Obama is in the back pocket of Wall Street and the banks and has turned his back on the working poor, impoverished and middle class in America.

I am not looking at President Obama's first term through rose colored glasses. There is always room for criticism and improvement; our president's decisions are far from perfect.

But the criticism from West and Smiley leave out a lot. They ignore the positive moves Obama has made to benefit -- in real ways -- the black community, the poor, the disadvantaged, and the country as a whole.

Let's take Obama and health care reform.

Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which he shepherded and signed into law, insurance companies are no longer allowed to deny insurance to individuals because of pre-existing conditions. Children can now remain covered by their parents' insurance until age 26. No longer will there be kids fresh out of college starting in entry level positions walking around with no health insurance.

The prescription drug cost for Medicare recipients was cut by 50%. More than 30 million people who did not have access to coverage will now have that access.

This legislation is not perfect -- it lacks the public option many had hoped for -- but it is the largest federal reform in a lifetime, a tremendous accomplishment.

Then there is the Children's Health Insurance Re-authorization Act, signed into law by Obama, which provides health care to millions of kids .

Let's talk Obama and education.

President Obama signed The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which invests $5 billion in early childhood programs like Head Start.

Studies show such programs help kids stay in school longer, earn more money in the long term and have lower involvement in crime.

President Obama also expanded Pell Grants, which help low income students pay for college.

He has done what no other president had done before by enacting the Student Aid and Financial Responsibility Act, which makes college more affordable while ending federal subsidies to private lenders and replacing them with a Direct Loan program. This is a direct contradiction of West's claims that the president has "sold out" to the big banks. The banks lost billions on this act; in taking them out of the equation, students are no longer held hostage to credit markets.

Somehow, these accomplishments, which have a direct impact on the poor are not mentioned in West's and Smiley's critique.

There's more. Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, restoring basic protections against pay discrimination

Through the HIRE Act, signed in March, 2010, Obama gave $18 billion in tax breaks for small businesses. He signed a bill extending unemployment insurance.

To review, then: Putting money into community colleges, job readiness programs, putting actual checks into actual hands -- these things don't sound like the actions of someone who doesn't care about the poor and impoverished.

There is a very real crisis in this country.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 45 million Americans live in poverty. Unemployment is 9.1 %. Such statistics are, as Rep. Maxine Waters has said, "unconscionable."

President Obama has been demonstrating that he knows this. So why make someone like him your enemy when you are fighting on the same side?

If West and Smiley would like Obama to do more, that's valid. If they feel, like Rep. Elijah Cummings, that "people need to know that the president feels their pain," that too is understandable. But the facts simply don't support the accusation that Obama holds a laissez-faire attitude toward economically marginalized Americans.

He has faced huge partisan resistance. His campaign adviser, David Axelrod, says Obama will soon announce a jobs plan that is expected to include an extension of payroll tax cuts, new revenue for transportation projects and an extension of emergency unemployment benefits. He notes that there's nothing in the proposal "that reasonable people shouldn't be able to agree on," yet many Republicans are already preparing to reject whatever the president puts on the table.

Are they trying to stymie job creation initiatives, and then blame the president for high unemployment when the election rolls around?

I'm not saying that President Obama should be exempt from criticism, nor do I believe it is some act of racial treason for a black person to hold our president accountable for his actions. But West and Smiley have a responsibility to present a fair and complete picture, not a skewed version. Could their slanted criticism result in so many of the working poor and impoverished working class becoming so discouraged that they stay home on election day in 2012?

If they think they have issues with the president not doing enough for the poor now, wait and see what happens if the opposition takes office. Then they would really need a poverty tour.

We must not forget the mess that President Obama walked into. Obama said in his victory speech, "even as we celebrate tonight we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime. ...The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year, or even one term."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Etan Thomas.

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