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Why Obama's National Action Network keynote was worth the wait

Through the bumps and bruises of presidential politics, President Obama still rouses his base of black supporters.
U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the 16th Annual National Action Network Convention at the Sheraton, New York on April 11, 2014.
U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the 16th Annual National Action Network Convention at the Sheraton, New York on April 11, 2014.

Felicia Brown waited in line for more than two hours to see President Barack Obama. She waited as the nerves of many of her line-mates began to fray. She waited as a rude volunteer threatened a gaggle of line-skippers. She waited as a host of VIPs hustled by, and as at least one person passed out and was carted off on a stretcher.

But after more than two hours and a final security screening, there she was, seated in the fourth-to-last row in a convention space at the Sheraton Hotel in midtown Manhattan, watching the first black president of the United States, live and in person.

And it was all by a stroke of luck that she made it there at all. 

Brown’s name was pulled randomly from a list of folks who had registered to attend the National Action Network’s annual convention, at which the president was Friday’s keynote speaker. Brown said she didn’t even realize the president would be speaking until Monday. Then, on Tuesday, she got a call from convention organizers telling her that she was selected to receive a ticket to the event.

“I got the phone call and I thought it was a joke,” said Brown, an unemployed benefits analyst from Plainfield, New Jersey. “I literally thought it was a late April Fools joke.”

After all the bumps and bruises the president has taken during a tumultuous first term in office, and the more recent healthcare and budget battles of his second, Brown said her affinity for Obama has been unshakable. The luster hasn’t faded a bit.

“I know this is a historical moment. I doubt we’re going to see another African-American president in my lifetime,” she said. “But it’s more than that. Just to know we have such a positive image of a black man. And the way he is with his wife and his children. It’s beyond just the presidency.”

Indeed, so much of Obama’s presidency has been about more than just his presidency. His image, that very image that Brown described as holding so much power, has hung implicitly, like a cloud, or in some cases, an anvil.

There was his former minister, Jeremiah Wright, whose fiery pro-black sermons cast a pall over his candidacy. And in the early days of his presidency, when the economy was in freefall and the unemployment rate for blacks hit double-digit highs, the Congressional Black Caucus angrily demanded that he, of first black president-fame, do more to help down-and-out blacks. The president demurred.

All these years later, as Obama has used his second term to shift the narrative that he hasn’t done enough to remedy the plight of black people, by focusing a lot of his efforts on issues disproportionately affecting people of color, the cloud continues to trail him.

His attendance at the National Action Network, a national activist organization founded and led by msnbc host Rev. Al Sharpton, was preceded by revelations that years ago, Sharpton worked in some capacity with the FBI to target members of New York’s mafia. Sharpton has long been used as a target for the right wing who, despite his dramatic evolution from street activist to mainstream cable news host, view him as a rabble-rousing race-baiter. Sharpton has also gained the ear of the White House and has consulted with Obama on a number of issues throughout his presidency. 

Sharpton acknowledged this week he had cooperated with the FBI but denied being an informant.

In an exposé on Sharpton by The Smoking Gun, the first five paragraphs reference the White House, Obama or First Lady Michelle Obama no less than 10 times: “Later this week, Obama will travel to New York and appear in a Manhattan hotel ballroom at the side of the man whom FBI agents primarily referred to as “CI-7” — short for confidential informant #7.”

The bad buzz surrounding revelations that Sharpton helped federal agents snare a host of nefarious underworld characters couldn’t dampen the mood for those who’d traveled to see the president address the National Action Network’s convention.

“Nothing but mess,” one attendee said, describing what had been big news on the front pages of New York City tabloids but little more than a blip on the national radar.

As Sharpton introduced President Obama on Friday, he praised POTUS as an “action president.”

“No president in the last 50 years has shown more action around protecting the rights of ordinary citizens and the civil rights of people denied than our action president Barack Obama,” Sharpton said. “I’m not talking about style. I’m not talking about rhetoric. I’m not talking about who would high-five us, I’m talking about action.”

A few minutes after taking the stage, President Obama looked over the crowd.

“I appreciate the idea of being an action president. But I do have style,” Obama joked. “I just want to point out that I do have it.”

The audience erupted in guffaws and cheers.

“That smile!” one woman swooned. “That smile!”

Felicia Brown’s own smile widened as she snapped photos on her smartphone. She listened as the president spoke of this year being the 50th anniversary of so many important civil rights markers, including the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And she clapped as he blasted mostly-Republican efforts to make it more difficult for Americans to vote, criticizing voter suppression efforts as undemocratic.

Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, told msnbc that he’s seen the president speak at least 50 times over the past six years. But this time was different, he said.

“Today there was a focused message. I think the president could have talked about a wide range of things. But he chose, I think rightly, to really focus on voting,” Morial said. “The right to vote is one of civil rights and one of basic American morality.”

“We’re up against a massive campaign to turn the clock back on multiple fronts. Obstructionism on the minimum wage. Obstructionism and voter suppression being spread around the land with the Supreme Court being a partner in this effort,” he added. “We must recognize and realize that we are at a pivot point in American history, where gains could be eroded, progress can be reversed, and that’s why these times are so significant.”

Following the president’s speech, Brown sat quietly for a long minute.

While much of Obama’s speech was about fighting for voting rights, he also touched on other issues, including the need to do more, collectively, for the plight of the nation’s most vulnerable, including young men of color who are disproportionately impoverished and the victims and perpetrators of violence. Earlier this year he launched a program called My Brother’s Keeper which pooled corporate funders and community groups to target young men and boys of color.

“I just wanted to go up and give him a big hug,” said Brown, a mother of two, including a 22-year-old son who is still trying to find his way in life. “This reminds me that we just have to keep pushing and fighting for a better future.”