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 criticized the president’s centrist tilt, alienating themselves from the administration.
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.
Ironically, Sharpton for years has had an arrangement with New York mayor Mike Bloomberg similar to the one he now has with Obama—never criticizing what is widely seen as the whitest management team in modern city history and enjoying access at City Hall.