I was among those who voted excitedly for Barack Obama in 2008 (and then again in 2012, though without as much excitement). In part, this was due to relief of having George W. Bush out of office. But beyond that, I had hopes Obama might be a new FDR. Of course, my expectations were too high, and in that unfair to Obama. And the fecklessness and ineffectiveness of Obama’s presidency is owed in no small part to an obstructionist Congress that set out to sabotage Obama’s work as soon as he was elected. Still, President Obama has disappointed all on his own. His presidency has continued governmental coziness with Wall Street. His drone bombings have included indiscriminate deaths of civilians, and have extended the open-ended war on terror. Government secrecy and surveillance has intensified under his watch.
Now emerging as one of President Obama’s severest critics is the theologian and social critic Cornel West. West’s just-released book, Prophetic Fire (Beacon), focuses mainly on figures in what he calls the Black Prophetic tradition, such as Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ella Baker. But in the process of discussing these figures, West has scathing words for Obama’s presidency. Such as:
The profound failings of President Obama can be seen in his Wall Street government, his indifference to the new Jim Crow (or prison-industrial complex) and his expansion of imperial criminality in terms of the vast increase of the number of drones since the Bush years. In other words, the Obama presidency has been primarily a Wall Street presidency, drone presidency, mass surveillance presidency unwilling to concretely target the new Jim Crow, massive unemployment, and other forms of poor and Black social misery.
The bailout of Wall Street by the Obama administration, rather than the bailout of homeowners, hurt millions of working people. The refusal of the Obama administration to place a priority on jobs with a living wage reinforced massive unemployment, and the sheer invisibility of poor people’s plight in public policy has produced more social despair among weak and vulnerable citizens. The unprecedented historical symbolism of the first Black president has misled many if not most Black people to downplay his substantial neoliberal policies and elevate his (and his family’s) brilliant and charismatic presence. . . . To sell one’s soul for a mess of Obama pottage is to trash the priceless Black prophetic tradition. Is it not hypocritical to raise one’s voice when the pharaoh is white but have no critical word to say when the pharaoh is Black? If the boot is on our neck, does it make any difference what color the foot is in the boot?
West is surely the most visible African American public figure to speak critically of President Obama. It may, at first blush, be surprising for an Black American to indict our first Black president. But to expect Black Americans to speak monolithically as one is but another way of disciplining and repressing actual Black voices. West’s bold critique has its place. By and large, it rings true.