How Al Sharpton Became Obama’s Go-To Black Leader

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The president’s extraordinary embrace of Al Sharpton last week has as much to do with his rejection of Jesse Jackson, Cornel West and Tavis Smiley as it does with the once-embattled reverend.President Obama’s extraordinary embrace of Reverend Al Sharpton last week has as much to do with the president’s antipathy for three other black leaders—Jesse Jackson, Dr. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley—as it does with any genuine White House enthusiasm for the controversial New York preacher.

Unlike Sharpton, who actually sat in the front row at Obama’s December announcement of the deal to extend the Bush tax cuts, Jackson, West and Smiley have criticised the president’s centrist tilt, alienating themselves from the administration.

Obama stayed so far away from Sharpton during the 2008 campaign that Sharpton, with Obama’s blessing, never even endorsed him. Yet not only did Obama just become the first president ever to appear at the annual conference of Sharpton’s National Action Network, 10 top Obama aides, including six cabinet members, Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod, spoke at various sessions of the four-day event. It was a “Yes Al Can” celebration.

This “enemy-of-my-enemy” alliance moved to the front burner more than a year ago, when Sharpton declared, in an interview with the New York Times, that Obama was smart “not to ballyhoo a black agenda.” Smiley fired back, saying it was “difficult” for Sharpton “to be the water carrier for the White House and, at the same time, trying to be the titular head, as it were, for Black America.” He argued that Sharpton was “inside the White House trying to help the president push his agenda out” rather than pressuring Obama to adopt an agenda for blacks disproportionately hurt by the great recession.

Since then, Smiley and West have continued to use their once-a-week national radio show to criticise the White House. “The President knows his base in black America is shaky,” Smiley charged on his radio show last week. “You can’t play that history card more than one time.” Blasting the Sharpton/Obama powwow, West said “Sharpton is wrong to provide cover to Obama given the level of Black suffering and misery.”

Until recently West, the Princeton religion professor, was an honored guest at Sharpton events. Now they are locked in a public feud. Appearing with Sharpton this week on MSNBC, West said he worried that Sharpton “could be easily manipulated” into simply fronting for the White House. Sharpton responded with attacks on “ivory tower” and “ivy league” critics of the president, who blame Obama for failings of the congressional leadership. Last year, Sharpton refused to attend summit about a black agenda in Chicago in March 2010, hosted by West,Smiley and Rev. Jesse Jackson and accused Smiley of “buck dancing for Bill Clinton” during the Clinton era.

The tensions between Obama and Rev. Jesse Jackson, the other key player is this dispute, are long-standing, rooted in Illinois and Chicago politics. But they got worse after an open mike caught Jackson saying, during the 2008 campaign, that Obama “was talking down to black folks” and threatening to “cut his nuts out.” Jackson participated in the Smiley/West black agenda conference last year and has also appeared on Smiley’s public television show deriding Obama over Afghanistan and domestic priorities.

By taking on these critics, Sharpton has become Obama’s go-to black leader, dispatched as a surrogate to several 2010 swing states by the Democratic National Committee, and ostensibly getting ready for a similar role in the 2012 race. Obama appears unconcerned about the ways Republican operatives used Sharpton in television commercials to taint Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.

The White House also appears untroubled by the fact that Sharpton has a long history of undermining New York Democrats, from David Dinkins to Mario Cuomo to Mark Green to Bob Abrams. He backed City Councilman Charles Barron, who was running on the ticket of the Freedom Party, against Democrat Andrew Cuomo –who did not appear at the Sharpton confab. Ironically, Sharpton for years has had an arrangement with New York mayor Mike Bloomberg similar to the one he now has with Obama—never criticising what is widely seen as the whitest management team in modern city history and enjoying access at City Hall.

West launched his most damning attack on Obama during last week’s radio show, charging that the president is “more and more becoming a black mascot for Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet for corporate plutocrats.” Slamming the president for agreeing to $30 billion in cuts shortly before it was revealed that the final tally was $38 billion, West said that Obama “has accepted the rightwing terrain.”

“There’s no fight, there’s no spine, there’s no serious passionate conviction.”

Wayne Barrett is a Newsweek contributor and a fellow at the Nation Institute.

This post originally appeared at The Daily Beast.