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Cornel West, Tavis Smiley Embark on Poverty Tour

ASSOCIATED PRESS | 7/28/2011, 4:39 p.m.

Cornel West and Tavis Smiley are embarking on a 15-city "Poverty Tour" to bring attention to the needy and to what they say are the failings of President Barack Obama.

West, a Princeton University professor, and Smiley, host of a TV talk show, expect to begin a bus trip Aug. 5 at a Native American reservation in Wisconsin. With visits to soup kitchens, housing projects, farms, families and low-wage workers, they say they hope to create momentum for large-scale job creation programs and put poverty on the 2012 election agenda.

Smiley said that as budgets are cut in Washington, "poor people are being rendered invisible."

Obama and Congress must pay more attention, he said.

"It's not just about the president," Smiley said. "Having said this, it would be nice to hear the president say the word 'poor,' to say the word 'poverty.' We get conversations about the middle class. Well, the new poor are the former middle class. But we can't get this president or any leaders to say the words 'poor' or 'poverty,' much less do anything about it."

Although their tour does not have a specific racial focus, "you can't ignore that black people are catching the most hell in this recession," Smiley said.

Kevin Lewis, a White House spokesman, said the administration has several programs to create jobs in underserved communities, such as the Urban Entrepreneurship Forum and Minority Business Development Agency. "Reducing unemployment for all Americans, which disproportionately burdens the African-American community, remains a priority for the president and his administration," Lewis said.

Smiley and West, who also co-host a radio show, have been persistent and harsh critics of Obama, saying he has prioritized Wall Street and big corporations at the expense of the poor and working class. "That's why I feel profoundly disappointed and in some sense betrayed," said West, who campaigned for Obama in 2008.

Their criticism has drawn scorn from a wide swath of African Americans who are protective of the country's first black president and believe Obama would alienate essential white voters by focusing on black problems. Some also believe Smiley and West are motivated by personal issues such as invitations declined, calls unreturned or inauguration tickets not provided by Obama.

In an interview with Obama that aired recently on National Public Radio, host Michel Martin mentioned West's labeling of the president as a "black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs" and she asked Obama if he has a special responsibility to look out for black people.

"I have a special responsibility to look out for the interests of every American," Obama responded. "That's my job as president of the United States. I wake up every morning trying to promote the kind of policies that are going to make the biggest difference for the most number of people."

Obama also discussed protecting "the core commitments that we make to the most vulnerable" in the deficit-cutting talks.

In 2008, the huge turnout of black voters was crucial to Obama's election. There is no indication that they are abandoning him now and polls do not offer evidence that dissatisfaction is growing.

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