Is Obama Just a Spectacle?

Question: Has Obama mastered the art of the spectacle?

Cornel West: I mean, I think the most effective use of the spectacle is brother Barack Obama himself. He's such a masterful televisual figure that he can appear on television late-night shows, five morning shows, have the kind of steadiness and sturdiness that does not really get at the degree to which the White House has not really stepped forward when it comes to this health care deal and standing up for public option, not showing the kind of backbone, sitting back trying to negotiate here, testing here, testing there. So not giving people a sense of not just what it is, but where they themselves are headed, because they want to cut a deal rather than take a stand. And of course, politicians are known for cutting deals, but when it comes to issues of life and death, if you're Lincoln, if you're FDR, you're not just cutting deals. Lincoln wasn't just cutting deals. FDR was not just cutting deals when it came to protecting the rights of collective bargaining, the workers and so forth. He had to cut against the grain and take a stand. And I think that the spectacle allows you to avoid taking a stand, showing backbone. That's what statesmanship is; that's what leadership is. It's the difference between a thermostat and a thermometer.

Question: Do you see our current period as a time of progress?

Cornel West: I think we have to draw a distinction between the symbolic and the substantial. The issue is symbol and substance: that we cannot deny the unprecedented progress when it comes to breaking glass ceilings. It can be Skip Gates at Harvard; it could be President Barack Obama in the White House. It could be Dick Parsons; we can go on and on. But to break the glass ceiling ought not to lead us to overlook so many locked into the basement, locked into the middle levels. And those issues are structural; they're institutional. So when you're dealing with increasing wealth inequality, you're dealing with a weakening working class and expanding poor working class and weak poor working class, then you've got some structural transformations that are taking place in which there's unprecedented opportunities at the top, from White House to Harvard, to even Princeton, myself, and yet you've got these dilapidated houses, you've got decrepit school systems, you've got unavailable health care, unavailable child care, depression-like levels of underemployment and unemployment.

So you've got this imbalance that it's hard to keep track of, especially in corporate media, you see. So that on the one hand you want to say, thank God that the age of Obama has begun; the age of Reagan is over; the great running amok, especially at the top, is over; the indifference to the poor is being called into question, we hope. And then the politics of fear has ended. So the question becomes, okay, in face of the greed, will there be serious talk about fairness? In face of the indifference, will there be serious talk about compassion, especially for the poor and working class? And in face of the fear, of course, there's hope, hope, hope, hope, hope. That's the mantra right now. And it's a good thing that the age of Obama is over. I've put in sixty-five events for my dear brother; he knew I was going to be a Socratic and critical supporter.

I've always felt that he's not progressive enough. I always felt he didn't have enough backbone. I've always felt that he didn't draw lines in the sand the way he should. But he is who he is, and he's a masterful and very charismatic politician. I want him to be a statesman and focus on poor and working people. He's still a politician very much in the neo-Clintonite mold. Economic team: recycled Clintonites. Foreign policy team: recycled Clintonites. And so there's no real history of a focus on poor and working people domestically, or no serious focus on trying to seriously focus on poor people and working people in the Middle East. And we're not just talking about Palestinians and Israelis, but working-class and poor Israelis, working-class and poor Palestinians, both of whom are suffering even though one is under occupation and one is not. So that those are the kind of perspectives that for me are very important in this age of Obama.

Recorded on: November 3, 2009

Or will he finally show backbone and take a firm stance? Cornel West hopes for the latter but fears the former.

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