Rev. Al Sharpton has found a new role: telling black leaders to quiet their criticisms and give the government a chance.
WASHINGTON—With his wavy bouffant and medallion necklaces, the Rev. Al Sharpton famously confronted government officials on behalf of black Americans. Now he has found a new role: telling black leaders to quiet their criticisms and give the government a chance.
President Barack Obama has turned to Mr. Sharpton in recent weeks to answer increasingly public criticism in the black community over his economic policy. Some black leaders are charging that the nation's first African-American president has failed to help black communities hit hard by the downturn, leaving party strategists worried that black Democrats will become dispirited and skip November's congressional elections.
Mr. Sharpton has emerged as an important part of the White House response. On his national radio program, he is directly rebutting the president's critics, arguing that Mr. Obama is right to craft policies aimed at lifting all Americans rather than specifically targeting blacks. One recent on-air fight with Tavis Smiley, a prominent talk show host and Obama critic, grew so heated that it has created a small sensation among black leaders.
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Al Sharpton, speaking in New York this month, is an unlikely Obama ally.
"The president does not need to get out there and do what we should be doing," Mr. Sharpton told Mr. Smiley during the testy exchange. He argued that expecting Mr. Obama to become a "black exponent of black views" was "just stupid," because it would create fodder for conservatives looking to defeat legislation that could ultimately help blacks.
In an interview, Mr. Sharpton added that it was a "double standard" for Mr. Smiley and other critics to expect more from a black president than they would demand of a white Democratic president.
Mr. Sharpton is an unlikely White House partner, given his racially polarizing history and efforts by Mr. Obama's 2008 campaign team to steer clear of the civil-rights leader.
But Mr. Sharpton could help ensure that blacks remain energized for November's elections—an important task in a year that finds the Democratic base to be less enthusiastic about voting than are Republicans.
Mr. Obama remains immensely popular with African-Americans, about 86% of whom approve of his job performance, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. But party strategists worry that, without Mr. Obama's name on the ballot, his personal appeal won't be enough to motivate black voters who may feel that the government is failing them. The new poll shows a steep decline from the near 90% black voter interest in the 2008 campaign, with fewer than half now saying they are very interested in the November elections.
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Mr. Sharpton during a march in New York in 1988.
Mr. Sharpton has been to the White House five times since Mr. Obama took office, most recently this month as part of a small group meeting with economics advisor Lawrence Summers. Mr. Sharpton's radio program, which airs in 27 markets, has become a friendly platform for administration officials to address black listeners, allowing Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, for example, to take credit for a recent $1.25 billion settlement with black farmers who had sued the government for discrimination.
Now there are signs that Mr. Sharpton will play a role in this fall's midterm elections. Democratic National Committee Chairman Timothy Kaine conferred with Mr. Sharpton this month on sending him to black churches and neighborhoods in politically important states to register and mobilize black voters.
For the president, the alliance with Mr. Sharpton carries risk. Where Mr. Obama has worked hard to mute race as part of his persona, Mr. Sharpton is famous for inflaming racial sensitivities, as when he represented Tawana Brawley, the black teenager whose 1987 claims of rape by several white men were discredited.
Former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, America's first elected black governor, said that Mr. Obama "went to great lengths to show that he is the president for all people, not just some people." Outreach to Mr. Sharpton, while shoring up black support, could hurt that image, he said.
"Sharpton brings a profile, whatever you think of it," said Mr. Wilder. "When he first got known was with the Tawana Brawley incident. A lot of people still remember it, and many of those old enough to remember it still haven't gotten over it."
Early in the 2008 presidential campaign, Mr. Obama's aides viewed any partnership with Mr. Sharpton as potentially damaging. Mr. Obama personally took steps to head off a likely visit by Mr. Sharpton to Iowa before that state's caucuses, according to the book "The Audacity to Win," by David Plouffe, Mr. Obama's campaign manager.
Mr. Sharpton said that Mr. Obama called him personally about the trip to heavily white Iowa but did not directly dissuade him from going. He said he decided on his own not to visit the state: "I didn't want him to lose because of me."
The experience showed the Obama team a new, pragmatic side of Mr. Sharpton. Mr. Plouffe wrote that for the rest of the campaign, Mr. Sharpton was a "reasonable and constructive force."
Later events would confirm that Mr. Obama was right to be cautious about race. He was forced to denounce racially charged and anti-American comments by his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., who, unlike Mr. Sharpton, refused to heed the campaign's desire that he disappear from view.
Now, Mr. Sharpton's visits to the White House are announced to the public. Last month, he addressed reporters in the White House driveway after an Oval Office meeting with other black leaders to press the president on jobs. At a White House Christmas party for liberal activists, Mr. Obama went out of his way in welcoming remarks to point out that "Reverend Al" was in attendance, say two participants.
Guests to Mr. Sharpton's radio program have included Jared Bernstein, chief economic adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Mr. Sharpton's advocacy group, the National Action Network, will feature Mr. Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at its annual conference next month, according to Mr. Sharpton's office. Mr. Biden spoke last year.
White House officials declined to discuss the specifics of their interactions with Mr. Sharpton. In an email, White House spokesman Corey Ealons described Mr. Sharpton as "one of many leaders we continue to speak with on the issues of the day."
Mr. Sharpton's transformation from protester to insider underscores how Mr. Obama's election has changed black politics.
Well before Mr. Obama's victory, black leaders began to debate the limits of protest politics, a tradition steeped in the civil rights movement and aimed at highlighting the needs of African-Americans to white political leaders. A generation of fiery candidates, such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the 1980s and Mr. Sharpton later, was giving way to black politicians eager to build support beyond the African-American community and for whom the injustices that stoked the civil rights movement weren't as formative.
The new generation included young candidates such as Mr. Obama and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who aimed for wide support and focused on broad remedies to social problems, rather than a race-based approach.
"There's a philosophical power struggle going on in black America between the old-school protesters and the post-ideological pragmatists," said the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III, a senior policy advisor to the Church of God in Christ, one of the largest black Pentecostal denominations. "Al Sharpton learned more quickly than many others that the ascension of Obama meant the end of protest politics."
"Al Sharpton," he said, "has grown from the premier politician of protest to the ultimate political pragmatist."
Still, the economic downturn, with its disproportionate effect on minorities, has brought new attention to the dispute over black political tactics. Some black leaders demand targeted aid for their constituents, noting that the black unemployment rate of 15.8% is nearly double the 8.8% rate for whites. A new study to be released this month by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a consumer advocacy group, found the foreclosure rate in the Washington metro area to be nearly three times as high for blacks as for whites.
But Mr. Obama has resisted calls to target an economic agenda to African-Americans, saying programs that help the economy generally will "lift all boats." The president has said that opening community health centers and expanding children's health insurance, for example, would assist minorities, who are more often uninsured. Blacks would also benefit from job training and college affordability proposals aimed at all Americans, he has said.
That argument has failed to satisfy many black leaders.
As recently as Thursday, members of the Congressional Black Caucus met with Mr. Obama to press for more aid to distressed communities. Last year, some caucus members vented frustration by skipping a committee vote on a financial regulation bill that was a priority for the administration. This month, caucus members opposed a $15 billion jobs bill that lacked provisions they felt would help the poor.
"We know that a rising tide does not lift all boats," Mr. Jackson said in an interview. "Wall Street and Harlem are on the same island. Wall Street has risen substantially. Harlem faces the pain of unemployment."
Some black leaders are also focusing frustration on Mr. Sharpton and his assistance to the president.
In an interview, Mr. Smiley said it was hard for Mr. Sharpton "to speak truth to power about the suffering of black people on the one hand, and then to be running in and out of the Oval Office and trying to run the president's agenda or express White House talking points."
His comments were echoed by Princeton University Professor Cornel West, who said in an interview that Mr. Sharpton risked becoming a "symbolic insider" whose views would be trumped by White House support for economic policies geared toward boosting Wall Street banks.
Such thinking amounts to a double standard, Mr. Sharpton says.
"They're stomping on the president, saying because he's black he ought to do what we've never asked any other president to do," Mr. Sharpton said. "Bill Clinton had a poverty tour, but we never demanded that he have a black agenda tour."
Mr. Sharpton, who is 55, has begun working with Republicans, as well. He and Newt Gingrich, former House speaker, toured schools in several cities last year with Mr. Duncan, the education secretary, to promote programs to close the racial achievement gap.
Such partnerships are far removed from Mr. Sharpton's earlier profile. Often accused of self-promotion, Mr. Sharpton led a demonstration through the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in 1991 at a time of clashes between blacks and Jews. In the Brawley incident, Mr. Sharpton was found liable in a defamation suit arising from the episode and in 1998 was required to pay a $65,000 judgment. It went unpaid until 2001, when a group of black business leaders paid it on his behalf.
Mr. Sharpton also built a flamboyant persona to match his political style, emulating hip-hop stars by wearing track suits and large medallion necklaces.
Then, one of his daughters told him he had to change.
"It's one thing to walk around 300 pounds in jogging suits and jewelry and say you don't care. But you care when your daughter says, 'Why don't you watch your waistline and stop wearing that ridiculous running suit?'" he said.
Mr. Sharpton, who now wears business suits, said he still benefits from the old image, particularly because it makes him a curiosity to his critics. He notes that he is a frequent guest of Fox News Channel conservative hosts Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity.
"I'd rather my opponents still think I have the jogging suit and the medallion," he said, "because they underestimate me and my ability to organize and get things done."
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