In playing the race card, Obama pulls a joker

It was disappointing the other day to see President Barack Obama embracing the vulgar race hustler Al Sharpton.

President Obama once eloquently confronted race in a memorable speech in Philadelphia in 2008. That speech was remarkable and honest and, to borrow a favorite word of the political left that still fawns over him, it was nuanced.

John Kass2

But there was nothing particularly remarkable about Obama standing next to the preening Sharpton, speaking in New York to his National Action Network. Except that Obama expertly used a message of victimization to begin energizing black voters, who provide the electoral foundation for the Democratic Party.

This wasn’t about nuance. This was about the class-war elections of November 2014.

“The right to vote is threatened today in a way that it has not been since nearly five decades ago,” Obama said, reaching back across time.

He didn’t quite touch Jim Crow and the poll tax and the civil rights struggles, but he didn’t have to. There were the broad presidential hints and they did the job.

“Across the country, Republicans have led efforts to pass laws making it harder, not easier, for people to vote,” Obama said, adding, “We won’t let voter suppression go unchallenged.”

Are Republicans oppressing black voters with a series of state voter identification laws that have been upheld by the Supreme Court?

The Democrats suggest as much. But I’m not so sure.

As a gun owner in Illinois, I am required to have a photo on my firearms owner’s identification card. And I’m required to do so even though the right to bear arms is protected under the Second Amendment.

So why shouldn’t other rights be subject to the same modern Democratic standards?

Activating a party’s base voters can be an ugly business. Democrats use class, race or gender. Republicans have equal mastery in these dark arts. They often use appeal to patriotism as cover for foreign military adventures that cost American lives and treasure. And when they use phrases like “free enterprise,” the words don’t even curdle in their mouths. The establishment Republican mouthpieces aren’t offended by their own insider deals and corporate welfare.

But political hypocrites notwithstanding, some ideals do survive in America, including the struggle to overcome racism and reward people based on hard work and merit.

That’s why it was so disappointing to see Obama with Sharpton, standing behind a lectern bearing the presidential seal. They don’t even seem like they’re from the same planet. And once, Obama wouldn’t have fawned over Sharpton or played this game with him.

In that other speech long ago in Philadelphia, Obama courted moderate suburban votes and journalists, who believed he would transcend the broken politics of the past.

But what happened in New York wasn’t about appealing to suburban moderation. The November elections are rushing up fast, and Democrats need to get out their base and test-market the message to see how far they can push these themes. And the president has obliged.

Sharpton plays the race card loud and fast, like a talented street grifter luring the clumsy rubes into a game of three-card monte.

And these days, Obama is almost subtle when he flicks that card against Republican foreheads. He gives the appearance of at least trying for subtlety, like an actor who studied baccarat by watching James Bond movies, then puts on a white dinner jacket and breaks the bank at Monte Carlo.

He’s played the other cards in his arsenal, pushing for a federal minimum-wage increase a few weeks ago, and then dropping the gender pay equity card, and now we’re down to black and white.

In 2008, it was different. He was a senator then, campaigning for the presidency, and forced to publicly confront the hate speech of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

And what Obama said then was honest and true.

“We’ve heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action,” he said then, “that it’s based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase reconciliation on the cheap.

“On the other end, we’ve heard my former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike.”

Back then, in March of 2008, I saw him as the next president.

It wasn’t that I yearned for his policies — I disagreed with him then on policy and still do — but it was obvious he was reaching for something good and decent in his candidacy and in all of us.

Now, though, I’m not so sure. The rhetoric has moved from transcendent to tired to bitter. The economy might have improved for Wall Street, but so many folks are still out of work or underemployed. The jobs haven’t come back.

All he’s got left is Obamacare, and despite some media and party cheerleading about enrollment numbers, Democrats in red states are edging away from it as fast as they can.

That a major political party has exhausted itself and run out of ideas shouldn’t surprise anyone. It happened to the Republicans a few years ago. It is now happening to the Democrats.

So what else is there for a lame-duck president when his party is desperate but to drum up the base?

Obama has kept Wright at a distance throughout his presidency. Couldn’t he have done the same to Sharpton?

It was Sharpton who played the carny barker in New York for the Tawana Brawley affair, and later, was considered to be one of the instigators in the Crown Heights riots. More recently in Chicago, he promised to bring national attention to the street violence here. But many of us here think he was trying to bring attention to himself.

By standing with him, Obama legitimizes him and tells the rest of us about the broken politics of the past.

The politics might be broken, but they work just fine.

(John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune who also hosts a radio show on WLS-AM. His e-mail address is:, and his Twitter handle is @john_kass.)

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