WASHINGTON—With his wavy bouffant and medallion necklaces, the Rev. Al Sharpton famously confronted government officials on behalf of black Americans. Now he has found a new role: telling black leaders to quiet their criticisms and give the government a chance.
President Barack Obama has turned to Sharpton in recent weeks to answer increasingly public criticism in the black community over his economic policy. Some black leaders are charging that the nation's first African-American president has failed to help black communities hit hard by the downturn, leaving party strategists worried that black Democrats will become dispirited and skip November's congressional elections.
Sharpton has emerged as an important part of the White House response. On his national radio program, he is directly rebutting the president's critics, arguing that Obama is right to craft policies aimed at lifting all Americans rather than specifically targeting blacks. One recent on-air fight with Tavis Smiley, a prominent talk show host and Obama critic, grew so heated that it has created a small sensation among black leaders.
"The president does not need to get out there and do what we should be doing," Sharpton told Smiley during the testy exchange. He argued that expecting Obama to become a "black exponent of black views" was "just stupid," because it would create fodder for conservatives looking to defeat legislation that could ultimately help blacks.
In an interview, Sharpton added that it was a "double standard" for Smiley and other critics to expect more from a black president than they would demand of a white Democratic president.
Sharpton is an unlikely White House partner, given his racially polarizing history and efforts by Obama's 2008 campaign team to steer clear of the civil-rights leader.