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Earl Ofari Hutchinson Headshot

Why Sharpton's Obama's New Go to Guy

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Two ominous political realities have settled in hard at the White House. One is a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll that showed that 86 percent of African-Americans approve President Obama's performance. For any other president that would be cause for champagne corking cheers, but Obama is not any other president. The 86 percent figure is roughly a double digit plunge from the near unanimous approval rating he got a year ago from blacks.

The private and increasingly public grumbles and grouses from the Congressional Black Caucus and other blacks that he's said and done little about failing public schools, the HIV/AIDS plague, criminal justice racial disparities, the lack of minority business initiatives and funding, and the Great Depression unemployment numbers among young blacks has stirred a nervous tremor at the White House.

Obama and Democrats well know that the black vote has been the Democrats' trump card in every election for the past half century, win or lose. Black voters have been so reliable, maybe too reliable, that Democrats have been repeatedly rapped for plantationism; that is for taking the black vote for granted and offering little tangible benefits in return for their unyielding support. If black voters had not turned the Democratic primaries into a virtual holy crusade for Obama, and if Obama had not openly in the South Carolina primary and subtly in primaries thereafter stoked the black vote, he would have been just another failed Democratic presidential candidate. The fight for the White House would have been between McCain and Hillary Clinton.

This bears heavily on the second reality. The mid-term elections are fast approaching. Political analysts, pundits, and even Democratic consultants are near unanimous that the Democrats will lose seats in Congress to Republicans. The only real question is how bad the political hemorrhaging will be. A solid and united GOP, and droves of independents who are disillusioned, disgusted and even hostile toward Obama, have made the black vote loom bigger still in Obama's calculus. There's little margin of error with this vote. He needs a reasonable facsimile of the November 2008 black vote outpour to save as many Democratic seats as possible, and serve as a partial shield against the withering non-stop attack on his agenda and his person.

Sharpton now is the White House go-to guy to shore up the troops. He is still widely regarded as an ego driven, media hogging race baiting agitator and opportunist who will jump on any cause to get some TV face time. But the personal hits on him are nothing more than the ritual anti-Sharpton name calling stuff. That's in part because of who many perceive him to be and the influence that he has on the street with many blacks, Latinos, the poor and community activists. This is a constituency that no liberal or moderate Democrat, least of all Obama, can afford to ignore or alienate.

Sharpton's appeal is his media pull and image. The lines between the two are hopelessly blurred. A sound bite, photo-op, rock star and Hollywood celebrity allure can mean as much if not more in determining a candidate's political fate than what they have to say about global warming, the deficit, the Iraq and Afghan wars, campaign reform, or the Wall Street meltdown, or even health care reform.

Sharpton then makes sense for Obama who by no means is the first politician in need of a sudden boost to turn to the Rev Al. Black politicians, various Democratic candidates have leaped over themselves to get mug shots, endorsements, and a spot on the dais at the National Action Network's confabs. At times, even some Republicans have saber rattled fence sitting white voters with the dread of Sharpton.

The New York senate race was a near textbook case of Sharpton's value to a needy Democratic candidate. When Caroline Kennedy faintly hinted that she was interested in Hillary Clinton's vacant senate seat she got pounded as a political novice and dilettante using her famed name to vault over a pack of far more worthy, seasoned, and political dues paying elected officials to get the seat. Kennedy quickly looked around the political landscape to find the right someone to burnish her paper thin political resume. The someone was Sharpton.

Sharpton is instant media and image. This is not to say that he is the consummate political king or queen maker. But that doesn't much matter in the glare of the cameras. A beaming Obama standing before a bank of TV cameras at well-scripted times with Sharpton in tow shows for the moment that the man who many love and many more love to hate is in his camp. For Sharpton it shows that he is important enough for Obama to want him in his camp.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His nationally heard talk show is on KTYM-AM 1460 AM Los Angeles, Fridays 9:30 AM and KPFK Pacifica Radio 90.7 Los Angeles, Saturdays Noon PST.