Tavis Smiley and Cornel West on Obama's Debt-Ceiling Deal: Republicans 'Cleaned His Clock'

Tavis Smiley, Cornel West say Obama has fought too little for the poor.

ByABC News
August 10, 2011, 5:22 PM

Aug. 10, 2011— -- PBS talk-show/radio host Tavis Smiley and Princeton University professor Cornel West have made no secret of their disappointment in President Obama.

"I think too often [Obama] compromises, too often he capitulates. I think the Republicans know that. I think they laugh when he's not around," Smiley said today in an interview with ABC News' Jake Tapper. "[The underclass] want him to fight for them and I think they're tired of seeing the Republicans clean his clock."

In a nationwide effort to raise awareness, Smiley and West kicked off a 16-city "Poverty Tour: a Call to Conscience," a few days ago, which rolled into Washington, D.C., this week. Their goal, they said, is to "help the president" by highlighting issues such as the regression of the middle class and rampant unemployment.

"We believe President Obama can wake up," West said. "To Travis and I, this is a moral issue, this is a spiritual issue. I don't care what color the president is."

Smiley said, "If this president is going to be a great president, not just one we celebrate symbolically, if he's going to be a transformative president, somebody -- lovingly and respectfully and committed to some core set of principles -- has to help push him."

Smiley and West say they believe Obama compromised too easily on the recent debate about raising the debt ceiling. Despite the president's efforts, Smiley said, corporate America and Wall street "got away again" and he didn't do enough to expand unemployment benefits.

"There was a declaration of war on the poor by this particular piece of debt-ceiling legislation," Smiley said.

While a White House official told ABC News that they have been trying to have a conversation with them for months, West said that wasn't true.

"That's a lie," he said. "That's not true at all...if they wanted to talk, they'd talk."

The two advocates have become critical of Obama's social and economic policies, saying he has largely ignored the issues of poverty and joblessness in the United States, particularly in destitute neighborhoods.

"Even his own base, black people, the most loyal part of his base, are getting concerned about his handling of the economy," Smiley said. "They may very well lose this election, this re-election bid, by a margin of black absence at the polls."

"We want an economic team, Paul Krugman and Robert Kuttner, Joseph Steiglitz's people and others, who say, you know what? We're sophisticated economists but we're concerned about poor and working people," West added.

In response to the criticism, White House press secretary Jay Carney told Tapper that the president has focused on "vulnerable communities" through negotiating the tax cut and tax-credit extensions last year.

"This president is very focused on every American who is suffering during these turbulent economic times," Carney said. "The politics that he's espoused and that he's pushed take into account, very seriously, those who are most affected."

While Smiley acknowledged the White House's comments, he said it's not enough and that the tax revenue that could be funding programs to alleviate poverty is instead being funnelled into fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Dr. King once said, speaking of Vietnam, that war is the enemy of the poor," Smiley said. "He was right them and he's right now. War is still the enemy of the poor."

Both West and Smiley pointed out that come the 2012 election, Obama can't "play the history card," and hope that his campaign can drum up the same enthusiasm as it did in 2008. West blamed the president's negotiating tactics for giving rise to independents and the Tea Party.

"You've got to fight," he said. "You have to fight. That's all there is to it."