Sunday's heated set-to between the Rev. Al Sharpton and Dr. Cornel West wasn't just an intramural pissing contest — although it was that, too — between two of the biggest names in black America.
Their MSNBC exchange stood in for the larger debate within the Obama coalition between the "professional left" — unhappy with Obama's moderate policies and more moderate governing style — and rank-and-file Obama voters who say he's done what he can under the circumstances.
An exasperated West demanded to know, "Where's the jobs bill?" to lower unemployment among African Americans, which stands at a dismal 15 percent; while Sharpton insisted that "too many of us are putting it all on the president," decrying criticism that looks to blame Obama for failing to address "black suffering that has always been there."
Each man made his point, but there's one simple reason Sharpton is right and West is ultimately wrong on Obama — West is an idealist, and Sharpton is a reality-based politician. And at this point, reality has Obama totally hemmed in. With a 45 percent approval rating and only one house of Congress, all he can do is continue to haggle with Republicans whose starting point for negotiation is: "Where's your birth certificate?"
Between now and November 2012, a jobs program targeted to help African Americans just isn't happening. Although black approval of the president recently dipped to a low of 85 percent, Sharpton's message was, in short, that this is as good as it gets. And his message was meant for Obama supporters across the spectrum.
If you're black and still basking in the afterglow of Obama's election, stop. If you're Latino and think that immigration reform is overdue, pace yourself. If you're under 30, forget you've ever heard of Medicare. If you're a worker still holding out for union "card check" legislation, one word: Wisconsin. And if you're a suburbanite who thought "change" was the new order of the day in Washington, guess again: It was only a mission statement.
People will be disappointed if they don't get that there's not a lot that Obama can deliver at this point if he can't find a big enough constituency to support it. That's really all that Sharpton — flexing his newly minted chops as the liberal voice of reason — was trying to say.
It's no mystery how Obama got to this point. Progressives pushed him to spend all of his political capital during his first two years, and that's what he did — getting the stimulus package by sheer force of personality, and passing unpopular health care reform when not a single Democrat in Congress was capable of selling it to the public.
But it's hard to say that Obama hasn't done anything for African Americans, because if you accept the premise that he's done a good job managing a bad economy, then you also have to think that if things were worse overall, unemployment could have been even higher in black America.
The Grio's Boyce Watkins argued this week that in the end, Sharpton and West's routine might be a "good cop, bad cop" scenario that helps them drive an inside-outside agenda with the Obama White House. Maybe he's right that Sharpton will score a few points with Team Obama, but don't count on the debate altering Obama's game plan.
When Obama speaks to the nation Wednesday to try to explain how he'll deal with next year's federal budget, he'll be playing defense. "Winning the Future" has already been sidelined in favor of reluctantly pushing his own deficit commission's proposal to cut entitlements along with raising taxes on top earners — something Obama should have proposed in the State of the Union — as the reasonable alternative to House GOP plans to cut taxes and voucherize Medicare.
Sharpton's right. There's not much the president can do without the electorate behind him. And if the electorate — and elections — are dominated by voters who oppose him, Obama's in the tough position of pushing an agenda, black or otherwise, that a lot of Obama voters didn't vote for.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.