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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President Obama and the Rev. Al Sharpton at the NAN gala (Spencer Platt/Getty)

If you had any doubt at all about the political clout the Rev. Al Sharpton has accrued since the start of the Obama administration, seeing the political heavyweights who showed up and spoke at the 20th-anniversary convention of his National Action Network (April 6-9) should put those doubts to rest. President Barack Obama himself made remarks at a gala celebration for the convention Wednesday night in New York City, with several cabinet secretaries addressing the gathering in daytime sessions.

It appeared that President Obama, by addressing a gathering of mostly black civil rights activists so soon after kicking off his re-election campaign, is signaling that he would not make the same mistake again that took place during the 2010 midterms: calling on members of his base at the 11th hour, when it was way too late to rally them against the GOP tide. It was also the fulfillment of a campaign promise he'd made in 2007 when then-candidate Obama spoke at a NAN gathering.

"Back then I had fewer supporters," he quipped Wednesday night at the Keepers of the Dream awards gala, which recognizes those who continue the mission of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "Most of you couldn't pronounce my name … I had a lot fewer gray hairs."

Earlier in the day, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, as well as former Senior White House Adviser David Axelrod, all addressed a packed room of hundreds of members and guests of NAN at the Sheraton hotel in Manhattan. The gist of their message to the largely black crowd: Speak up and support the president at the polls in 2012, or you won't like what the Republicans have in store for you. The possibility of a government shutdown over the failure of Democrat and Republican lawmakers to agree on the 2011 federal budget adds extra weight to that message.

"Look, I know that as hard as times have been for the country, they've been even harder on minority communities," said Axelrod. "In that environment it's easy to lose heart, but it's also important to remember what's at stake. In 2012 people are going to have a choice. It's not just Barack Obama that's going to be on the ballot. It's going to be things like Head Start, Pell Grants; it's going to be things that will make a big difference for young people." Expected at the convention later in the week to reinforce the message are Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Senior Adviser to the President Valerie Jarrett and Deputy Assistant to the President Michael Strautmanis.

All day, those gathered were reminded by speakers how bad things were -- the banking crisis, the mortgage meltdown, the auto-industry implosion -- when the president took office. It's another message you can expect plenty of times during the 2012 campaign. "Let's not get amnesia," cautioned Sharpton during his introduction of the president. "He came into office when we had great challenges, and what many people have conveniently forgotten is that this president took this nation from where it had never been before in our lifetimes and put it back on a solid course."

 

Speaker after speaker emphasized the role of personal responsibility -- as voters, parents and citizens -- in turning around the country, healing their communities and beating back a White House takeover by the GOP. "Low expectations is the new racism," Sharpton warned, calling to mind a popular Republican catchphrase during the Bush years: "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

Holder distilled the message into this slogan as he discussed how citizens should approach the problem of youth violence in many communities: "Take it personally." President Obama invoked it in relation to the need to better educate our children. "Without parental responsibility, nothing else we do will matter," he said.

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