It might be the oddest political pairing of the year. Barack Obama, whose campaign for president carefully avoided race-based political appeals, is teaming up with the man who practically perfected them: the Rev. Al Sharpton.
So far, Sharpton has been to the White House more times, and for more close-up conversations with Obama, than the leaders of other long-established civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League.
And in April, Vice President Joe Biden addressed the annual convention of Sharpton’s group, the National Action Network, in New York.
Now the Department of Education is making plans for Sharpton to join Secretary Arne Duncan on a five-city tour this fall–an idea that Duncan’s aides say came directly from the White House after the Oval Office meeting.
But it’s more than that. Obama ran as a sort of anti-Sharpton, the first “post-racial” presidential candidate. To see him reaching out to a figure who was once so divisive makes some wonder what Obama sees in Sharpton.
“This is the perpetual reincarnation and rehabilitation of Al Sharpton. He is a master at that, but there’s a difference between thoughtful change and chameleon expedience. Some people would describe it as having no principles,” said Doug Muzzio, a professor at Baruch College’s School of Public Affairs. “He’s incisive, but there is a Barnum-like quality about him, and the sucker is being born every minute. I am not in Obama’s mind, so I don’t know what it is that attracts Obama to Al Sharpton.”
“People want solutions, and it isn’t about the old tribal issues anymore. You deal with the person on the field. Everybody loves Jordan, but LeBron James is the one that is playing,” Sharpton said in an interview with POLITICO.
“It’s not that I am an insider or a confidant of the president, but we have a good working relationship and I have a good relationship with [Obama senior adviser] Valerie Jarrett. We don’t talk every day–I am not on her quick dial–but if I need to reach out, I will call her,” Sharpton said.
But no previous White House has embraced Sharpton as a spokesman for an issue the way the Education Department is doing now. That speaks to Sharpton’s success as a new voice in the education reform debate–an issue that has teamed him with the conservative Gingrich, as well.
Yet activist Al remains, and he is still hopscotching across the country, appearing at church pulpits where he often name drops Obama and still staging rallies. He ended a gathering at the White House ellipse where the five-city education tour was announced with the familiar call, “No Justice, No Peace!”
Sharpton admits that he has previously been “more caught up in the drama than the result.” But he says that he knows “the pulse of black America” and has expanded the reach of his National Action Network, which was recently hit with an FEC fine for shoddy bookkeeping during his 2004 presidential campaign.
At first, however, he played coy, fielding entreaties from both Obama and Hillary Clinton. But by the time the Clinton vs. Obama race ended, Sharpton had become the most vocal, and unequivocal, Obama backer.
He defended Obama against the Rev. Jesse Jackson, toured the country for a voter registration drive and threatened a lawsuit against the Democratic National Committee if Florida’s and Michigan’s disputed delegates were seated, the most pro-Obama/anti-Hillary stance of anyone.
It didn’t go unnoticed by the campaign, aides said.
Education Department spokesman Peter Cunningham said the administration welcomes Sharpton’s help, even given his controversial history.
Obama appeared at the National Action Network’s 2007 convention, called into Sharpton’s radio show several times and asked Sharpton for advice in advance of the debate at Howard University. But the most public meeting of the two men came in November 2007 at Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem.