President Obama took to the stage Wednesday evening in New York and openly courted his base as he fulfilled a promise made in 2007 to Al Sharpton that he would return and speak at his National Action Network conference.
“The last time I came was in April of 2007, four months ago -- four years ago this month. Back then I had fewer supporters,” he said at the civil rights convention. “I said that we were facing extraordinary challenges in this country, but that what was stopping us from solving them wasn’t a lack of policies; it wasn’t a lack of plans. What was stopping us was a broken politics. A broken politics in Washington -- a politics that was all about the next election instead of the next generation; that was all about what we disagreed about instead of what we had in common; a politics that made us cynical about our ability to change this country.
“And I said that if you stand with me and believe in what we can do together, if you do what civil rights groups like the National Action Network have always done, if you put your shoulder to the wheel of history, then we can move this country toward the promise of a better day. I told you at the time I wasn’t a perfect person, I wouldn’t be a perfect president, but what I could commit to was always telling you the truth even when it was hard, and I would spend each and every day thinking about you.”
As the president and also again candidate Obama looked reflected in his speech, a lot can change in the course of a few years. When Barack Obama became a serious contender in the 2008 presidential race, he could ill afford to be too closely associated with the likes of Rev. Al Sharpton. Back then, Sharpton was almost as polarizing a national figure as Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who at one point posed a serious threat to his campaign.
Wednesday night, however, he embraced the formerly controversial figure like an old, dear friend.
As one person in attendance noted, “Sharpton started in the outhouse. Now the White House comes to him,” reports the New York Post. It was Obama’s second trip to New York in a little over a week. The president traveled to Harlem last week for two very pricey fundraisers that raised more than $1 million.
Since his election in 2008, Obama has had to walk between being the nation’s first African-American president and being, well, African-American. But as he gears up for what could be a tough reelection bid, he understands the need to shore up his African-American base.
Although most are reluctant to say so publically, it’s an open secret that Black lawmakers and civil rights advocates have been concerned that Obama has not done enough to address the problems plaguing their constituencies, such as unprecedentedly high levels of unemployment and home foreclosures, during the recession that rocked the nation’s economy immediately before his election. African-Americans are hardly likely to vote for a Republican candidate next year, but they could hurt Obama’s re-election prospects by simply staying at home on election day.
In his remarks, Obama acknowledged how critical African-American support has been to his success and said that injustice and inequities that exist in American society are what led him and others into politics.
“They’re what led ordinary people to sit down at the front of the bus, to cross that bridge in Selma, to heed a King’s call to perfect our union,” he said. “They’re the heart of what makes us Americans. That’s who we are. And because of your support, they’re the causes that I’ve been carrying since I’ve been in the Oval Office.”
He also noted that the unemployment rate for African-Americans is significantly higher than the white jobless rate and said that education is “the single most important factor” that will determine any individual’s success.
“When too many of our schools are failing our children, too many of our kids are dropping out of school, that’s not a black or white or brown problem--that is an American problem. We’re going to have to solve that problem. We are all responsible for the education of all of our children,” Obama said, adding that education is “the key to opportunity” and “the civil rights issue of our time.”
(Photo: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)