The video is from a totally different era. Barack Obama, young and still a little rough around the edges, gets distracted — a phone keeps vibrating inside the podium at which he speaks.
“Aaaaand,” Obama finally says, trying to take a packed, restless room through his biography. “There’s something humming under here.”
Al Sharpton jumps up from his seat and retrieves his phone from the dais. “That’s Sharpton’s BlackBerry,” Obama announces, and the crowd laughs when he adds that the interruption is “breaking my flow.”
By now, he has the room, so Obama goes for it: “Is that Hillary callin’?”
That — at the 2007 National Action Network convention, then dubbed the “Sharpton primary” — was right before Obama went from an unlikely prospect to an actual president.
A decade later, it’s all happening again ahead of what’s expected to be one of the most wide-open Democratic presidential primaries since 1976. Potential candidates Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Kirsten Gillibrand will speak Friday. Both former US attorney general Eric Holder and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo spoke on the opening day of the convention.
Sharpton, for one, thinks the current time is different from 2007.
That’s in part because how black Americans will vote in 2020 won’t be defined — as it was in 2008 — by a divide between people who felt an allegiance to the Clintons (even if it was cultivated in what then seemed like a distant boomtime), and the candidate who stuck a chord with Sharpton and his audience by saying, “If there’s a child in Harlem that can’t read, that makes a difference in my life, even if it’s not my child.”
“A lot of people were saying, ‘Well, is he black enough?’ Sharpton, an adviser to Obama throughout his presidency, told BuzzFeed News. “He walked out of there with a lot of people feeling that he was. I think that he not only won the audience, but he was way above expectations.”
That year, the audience had any number of presidential speeches to take in: John Edwards, Bill Richardson, both Clintons, Joe Biden, and (current Ohio gubernatorial candidate) Dennis Kucinich. Suddenly, Sharpton’s 2004 presidential run had positioned him as the most prominent spokesperson for black Americans and a proselytizing kingmaker in the Democratic Party — a position he took seriously then and hasn’t quite relinquished.
“[That convention] was really for us to see if Hillary, who had a lot of relationships and lot of people invested in those years with her husband — whether those relationships were going to hold and keep the black vote,” he said. “The question was ‘Is this new rising star, Barack Obama, who was unknown, but black, going to be able to chip away at that?’”
Another difference today: There’s no one dominant candidate who seems primed to attract the black Democratic vote. In Sharpton’s estimation, even the possible black candidates appearing Friday are relative unknowns; California Sen. Kamala Harris is a shiny political prospect, but relatively new in the context of civil rights from a national perspective, he said. He said it’s the same for Cory Booker, who, while known in the Northeast and Tri-state area, will be introducing himself to a wider set of grassroots civil rights leaders much like Obama had to in 2007.
So what distinguishes one candidate from another for an audience like that of the National Action Network? Obama offered a preview of his supreme confidence (he talked about what he would accomplish during his first term in office). He offered a quick attack on the unpopular Republican president (“There’s going to be a lot of talk about what George W. Bush hasn’t done. And we know what that list is, we know it’s a long list — every single candidate can lay out a greatest hits of how George Bush has failed America”), before pivoting into what should be next (“But ultimately is what I want to spend [time] talking about is where we go from here”).
Specifically, and close to Sharpton’s heart, Obama framed himself as an heir of the King legacy. It was clear he could have done anything, Obama’s argument and biography went, but instead, he chose a path of service, choosing to focus his message that day on his accomplishments as a community organizer and lawmaker.
On the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, Sharpton and other leaders have sought to reinvigorate the movement by invoking King’s message and integrity and emphasizing its relevance today. On that point, Sharpton stopped short of saying that Obama won the faux straw poll that year by seeking to embody the King legacy. “I think [his speech] was in the King tradition in the sense that he was saying, ‘I am what y’all fought for. So how can you not fight with me when you made me possible?” Then Sharpton paused.
“I think people bought that hook, line, and sinker.”