He avoids race, so the story goes. He can't afford to alienate white voters, black people will vote for him again anyway, so he has little to gain by approaching such a volatile subject.
Yet on Wednesday, President Barack Obama is scheduled to make a foray into racial territory by speaking in New York at the Rev. Al Sharpton's national convention — an early step on the tricky path that Obama must navigate in order to engage black voters who are crucial to his re-election.
On the one hand, there's nothing unusual about a president fulfilling a campaign promise made to a staunch political ally whose radio show is broadcast in 40 cities each weekday. Nor is it odd for Obama, who has spoken to other civil rights groups, to connect with Sharpton, a frequent White House visitor whose fame flows from his aggressive brand of black advocacy.
Aside from the timing of Obama's speech — two days after his re-election bid was made official — Wednesday's events at the National Action Network gathering are heavily political. Obama's top campaign aide, David Axelrod, is to address a special plenary, followed by the secretaries of education and housing, the attorney general and the EPA administrator.
Obama remains highly popular among blacks. In 2008, 95 percent of blacks who voted chose Obama. In a Gallup poll last week, 84 percent of blacks approved of Obama's overall performance, about the same percentage as six months ago.
So why all the attention now?
It's actually harder for Obama to reach out to black voters than it would be for a white president, said Mark Anthony Neal, an African-American studies professor at Duke University, "because there's a narrative that he's catering to a black constituency."
"Obama needs Al Sharpton as a certain kind of surrogate for black voters," Neal said. "Symbolically, his willingness to speak at the convention is a subtle message to black voters that he is paying attention to their concerns.
"Because that's the other side of the narrative ... there is a heavy critique of Obama among black voters for not being cognizant and attentive enough to issues affecting the black community."
A factor in this dilemma is the view among some whites that the president gives blacks favorable treatment. Carol Swain, a Vanderbilt University political science professor and Obama critic, called that view a misperception, but said it was fed by cases like the New Black Panther voter intimidation lawsuit and the Justice Department asking Dayton, Ohio, to lower its police exam passing score because too few black applicants passed.
This dynamic may have made Obama "overly defensive" about race, said Bill Anderson, a host on the Philadelphia black talk radio station WURD.
"But think about it," Anderson said. "If the president speaks to an entire room of white people, nobody says he's alienating society. But if you go to an organization that's dealing with (issues) important to society but from an African-American perspective, all of a sudden, you're a separatist."
That's how some view Sharpton.
As his National Action Network celebrates 20 years of fighting for social change and justice, Sharpton's methods and image have evolved. President George W. Bush publicly praised him for leadership on education, and Sharpton joined arch-conservative Newt Gingrich on a 2009 national tour advocating for better schools.
Six Democratic presidential candidates came to Sharpton's convention in 2007, and Sharpton remembers Obama promising that win or lose, he would return. Now Obama will be the first sitting president to attend.
Yet some still consider Sharpton to be the rabble-rousing, pompadoured agitator of the 1980s who spread Tawana Brawley's unproven claim about being sexually assaulted by white men and, in a separate case, exhorted protests that ended with eight dead at a Jewish-owned store in Harlem.
Sharpton is used to the criticism, even when it comes from black people. "It's a burden you bear gladly," he said in an interview. "I'm doing a job people would rather not see done."
The National Action Network website lists 42 chapters nationwide and claims 200,000 members. In addition to his 40-city radio reach, Sharpton is on satellite radio and leads a weekly Harlem rally.
"I'm probably talking to more people than most activists have ever done," Sharpton said. "I know what's on people's minds, and I'm able to mobilize them."
He also has a strong connection to what Obama adviser and Harvard University law professor Charles Ogletree once called "the streets ... the people who are voiceless, faceless and powerless."
These are the people bearing the brunt of the 15.5 percent black unemployment rate reported in March, up from 15.3 percent in February. The overall national rate in March was 8.8 percent, a two-year low.
The president "is going with Sharpton to show us some support some kind of way," Ilsa Lilly Fields, a black woman, said as she left a West Philadelphia drugstore Tuesday.
Fields made a face when Sharpton's name was mentioned: "He's just loud and always in everyone's business. He's not a helpful person."
But she said Obama was doing the best he could to help blacks: "We're a patient people. We know what Obama has to do. We're just waiting for him to do it."
Swain, the political scientist, said even though Obama has not addressed black issues, blacks remain protective of him — "almost like a member of the family."
"Black people are in many ways worse off today than they have been in decades," she said. "They're worse off than if there was a white president, because a white president has to do something for the black community. Obama doesn't have to do anything."
Across the street from the drugstore, inside Yock's Sandwich-Ville USA, out-of-work plumber Benjamin Ryan said many whites in his union complain that Obama is favoring blacks.
"It's just the way they're raised," said Ryan, who is white. "It's far from the truth, but it's what they're exposed to."
Ryan's wife, Sharletta, who is black, said Obama visiting Sharpton's conference is just "playing a typical game of politics." She approves of his performance as president, but called Sharpton a "race pimp."
Ryan predicted Obama would not get as many white votes in 2012 as he did in 2008, "so getting out the black vote is going to be huge."
Anderson, the talk show host, said Obama's visit sends a message: "This is something I need to do, and (critics) are just going to have to deal with it."
(Photo: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
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