05/26/2011 01:23 pm ET Updated Jul 26, 2011

Cornel West and the President: What Are We Really Talking About?

Cornel West's recent criticisms of President Obama have made news for the wrong reasons. The story is all about West. It shouldn't be.

Isn't West an egotist miffed about being excluded from the president's inner circle? Isn't it hypocritical for an Ivy League professor to suggest that the president cares more about being accepted by the ruling elite than about standing up for the poor?

Isn't it uncivil to imply that having grown up among people who were not descendants of slaves has something to do with the president's failure to express sympathy for the descendants of slaves? Isn't it wrong to call the president a "Black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs"?

Suppose that the answer to all four questions were yes. What would we have learned? Only that West is a fallible human being, which he has been saying for as long as I have known him.

Here are some questions actually worth debating: Why did the election of an African-American president not draw more attention to the misery of the African-American underclass? How did a campaign about bottom-up change result in an administration favorable to Wall Street?

How can the millions of people who don't have jobs, or enough to live on, or a fair shake from their lenders and employers take the country back? What hope is there for democracy when the rich and the lucky dominate the rest?

These are the questions that West has been trying to raise since November 2008. They are good questions. It is a pity that he attracted a lot of attention only when he cast his criticisms of the president in personal terms.

Obama is responsive to power. In this respect, he is like all other politicians. If he isn't the mascot of Wall Street oligarchs, he is the public face of their regime, he serves their interests, and he reinforces their view of themselves as tolerant and benevolent. That he is responsive to the corporate elite does not require explanation in terms of his upbringing and personality.

Even if the president were more courageous, even if he identified more strongly with the downtrodden, the power imbalance in our society would still be roughly what it is, and Obama would either be dancing to a tune called by oligarchs or getting nothing done.

The oligarchs have massive power. Their power is a product of the corporate organizations they run, which give employees monetary incentives to cooperate in carrying out the objectives of management. The resulting economic power translates easily into political power. And when it does, the politicians pay attention.

People outside the economic and political elites are, on the whole, weakly organized and therefore lacking, for the time being, in power. If there were stronger labor unions and a highly developed network of citizens' organizations exerting pressure on politicians, there would be a fighting chance for poor and middle class people to hold the ruling elites accountable.

We know this because we know how slavery was abolished, how women won the franchise, and how African-Americans got to sit in the front of the bus. The news from Tunis, Cairo, and Madison reminds us that ordinary people can generate power of their own.

Nowadays ordinary Americans have a power shortage. They have a power shortage because they are weakly organized. Their only chance of holding elites accountable, of countering domination, is to organize themselves skillfully and use the resulting power wisely.

Candidate Obama inspired people because he spoke about all this. He misled his followers into thinking that large-scale democratic change would happen if he were elected. His presidency has disappointed them. The trouble is that the basic power imbalance is still there.

The ego of the prophet and the personality of the president don't matter. What matters is who is organized, by what means, toward what ends. The real story, as the president used to say, is about us. The president disappoints us because we let him.