HE is a media darling, a paparazzi target and a source of inspiration for millions of Democrats who dream of retaking the White House in 2008. But Senator Barack Obama, the charismatic African-American who is shaking up the presidential primary race, has not impressed some of America’s most powerful black activists.
Civil rights leaders who have dominated black politics for much of the past two decades have pointedly failed to embrace the 45-year-old Illinois senator who is considering a bid to become America’s first black president.
At a meeting of activists in New York last week, the Rev Jesse Jackson, the first black candidate to run for president, declined to endorse Obama. “Our focus right now is not on who’s running, because there are a number of allies running,” Jackson said.
The Rev Al Sharpton, the fiery New York preacher who joined the Democratic primary race in 2004, said he was considering another presidential run of his own. And Harry Belafonte, the calypso singer who became an influential civil rights activist, said America needed to be “careful” about Obama: “We don’t know what he’s truly about.”
The unexpected coolness between the old civil rights guard and the new Democratic hopeful has added an intriguing twist to the budding rivalry between Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton, who hopes to emulate her husband, former president Bill Clinton, in attracting support from black voters.
The importance of the black vote—and the still-potent influence of community leaders such as Jackson and Sharpton—was underlined last week when both Clinton and Obama appeared at different times in New York at a black business conference organised by Jackson’s Rainbow/Push Coalition.
Clinton was applauded at a breakfast meeting for her attacks on President George W Bush’s economic policies of “tax breaks for the rich”. She added: “It is not rich Americans who have made this country great. It is hard-working Americans who have worked hard to lift themselves and their children up.”
Delayed by bad weather, Obama turned up in the evening to pay respectful homage to Jackson’s presidential bids in the 1980s. “I owe him a great debt,” Obama said. “I would not be here had it not been for 1984 . . . for 1988. If I’m on the cover of Ebony (an African-American magazine), it’s not because of me. It’s because a whole bunch of folks did the work to put me there.”
Yet Obama’s charm and eloquence have not wooed the old guard.
“They are basically jealous,” said a Democratic strategist who has not yet decided which candidate he intends to support. “They’ve been toiling in the trenches for decades, and along comes this son of a Kenyan farmer and suddenly he’s measuring the drapes in the Oval Office.”
Sharpton, 52, is widely considered to have no better chance of winning the Democratic nomination than in 2004, when he never amassed more than a few percentage points in the polls but still made a national impact with his barnstorming performances in the televised primary debates.
When asked about Obama’s likely candidacy, the preacher, renowned for outrageous self-publicising antics, shrugged: “Right now we’re hearing a lot of media razzle-dazzle. I’m not hearing a lot of meat, or a lot of content. I think when the meat hits the fire, we’ll find out if it’s just fat, or if there’s some real meat there.”
Belafonte, who returns to British cinema screens shortly with a small role in Bobby, the new Emilio Estevez film about the assassination of Robert F Kennedy, also cast doubt on Obama’s credentials as a legitimate candidate.
“He’s a young man in many ways to be admired,” Belafonte said. “Obviously very bright, speaks very well, cuts a handsome figure. But all of that is just the king’s clothes. Who’s the king?” There were contrasting views on the likely impact on Obama’s campaign of black competition or criticism. One analyst argued that a Sharpton candidacy would “put Obama on the spot” by forcing him to address awkward civil rights issues such as police brutality and racial profiling that he tends to steer clear of. One Democratic blogger argued that Sharpton was “just what the doctor ordered to keep Obama on the straight and narrow”.
Others suggested that Sharpton would help Clinton by dividing black primary voters. In one interview last week, Sharpton warned that Obama could not take the black vote for granted. A strategist pointed out, however, that Obama could emerge as a “model of reason, compared to that blowhard Al (Sharpton)”.