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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.”