Does Sharpton Have the White House on Speed Dial?

Just days after kicking off his 2012 re-election bid, Obama addresses a convention for the reverend's activist group, with cabinet members in tow.

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In fact, most of the president's address -- in front of roughly 1,000 NAN members, politicos and celebrities -- focused largely on better education as a solution for the problems our nation faces. He cited the Race to the Top grant program, investment in HBCUs and modifications to the federal student-loan program as accomplishments that will help the nation achieve the goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the end of the decade.

Obama also assured the audience that he feels their pain when it comes to tackling chronic unemployment ("I got my start tackling the problems of joblessness and hopelessness that afflict so many of our cities and rural communities") or paying off student loans ("I remember the end of the month"). He acknowledged how worn down many of his supporters feel, the kind of frustration that led veteran Velma Hart to say she was tired of defending the president.

"There are times when change can seem painfully slow to come by," Obama said. "There are times when some of you may have said, I don't know what Obama is doing there. There are times where you lose hope, times when folks in Washington focus on scoring points instead of solving problems. And some of you may just put up your hands and say, politics is too tough. But in those moments when we start asking ourselves if change is possible, you've got to remember what we've done together over the past few years."

He continued, "Remember all the children who will graduate from high school ready for college and beyond. Remember all the Americans who will no longer have to worry about going bankrupt because they got sick. Remember all the families who will no longer be exploited by insurance companies or a credit card company or a mortgage lender."

The president concluded by invoking the image that inspired so many African-American voters back in 2008: that he is "a living testament that change is possible." Willing to go back to that place in their hearts for a few moments, the audience gave the president a warm standing ovation as a send-off.

Earvin "Magic" Johnson, one of the honorees at the gala where Obama spoke, was among those left impressed by the day's proceedings. "How great was it that the president came to speak tonight, and brought so many members of his administration down to the conference?" Johnson remarked to The Root, adding that he looked forward to helping to raise money for the 2012 re-election run.


Other honorees at the gala included NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown, MSNBC President Phil Griffin, Universal Motown President Sylvia Rhone and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees  Secretary-Treasurer Lee Saunders. Martin Luther King III, Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), former New York Gov. David Paterson, Spike Lee and Stevie Wonder were among the luminaries in attendance.

MSNBC on-air personalities Tamron Hall and Ed Schultz acted as co-hosts, and Bill Cosby gave a rambling keynote speech on -- what else -- the need for black people to take personal responsibility for raising their children and creating better communities ("We suffer from too many preachers and not enough sermons," he said).

Consider the proceedings as the latest step in an evolution that Sharpton has undergone. He entered mainstream public awareness as a bouffant-coifed rabble-rouser who was sued for slander over the Tawana Brawley case ("He was not always listened to; people thought he was a rabble rouser. He was a fat guy in a track suit," noted former New York Mayor David Dinkins in a short video that was aired during the gala). A tireless champion of justice for police-shooting victims and victims of violence, from Amadou Diallo to Sean Bell, Sharpton ran for president in 2004 (and was later fined by the Federal Election Commission for breaking campaign-finance rules). That bid paved the way for the svelte, silver-haired radio-show host and Beltway power broker of today.