Real Clear Politics; by Richard Baehr; April 30, 2008
When Barack Obama made his official announcement that he was running for President over 14 months ago in Springfield, Illinois, the Senator made sure that his pastor Jeremiah Wright had no speaking role and was kept away from the ceremony. Obama campaign manager David Axelrod has admitted that there were concerns back then about what Wright might say.
When Senator Obama made his speech in Philadelphia on race in America following the first round of Reverend Wright media exposure several weeks back, he admitted he had heard some of the Reverend’s more controversial remarks in person in church.
“I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely — just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.”
But now, the Senator has really had enough of Reverend Wright. In a press conference Tuesday, Obama condemned Wright, and claimed that Wright had offended him with his latest tirade on Monday at the National Press Club.
Many Americans did not have to wait for Wright’s talk to the National Press Club to have taken offense. In fact, there is nothing the Reverend said Monday or with Bill Moyers on PBS, or at the NAACP dinner in Detroit (to thunderous ovations) that was in any substantive way different from what he has been saying over and over again for decades (to thunderous applause among the thousands packing Trinity Church). We had already heard about the US government bringing AIDS into the black community, and how Louis Farrakhan was a great American.
So why did this particular performance by Wright finally create the need for Obama to speak up more forcefully? That answer is simple: falling poll numbers in Indiana, North Carolina and nationally, and to that, we can safely conclude, Barack Obama takes great offense.
One of the charter members of the Obama media worship team, Chris Matthews, has already compared Obama’s “courageous” actions in denouncing Wright to those of King Henry II telling Thomas Becket where to get off 8 centuries ago. That comparison will likely not resonate with many voters. Tom Shales, Hendrik Hertzberg, Andrew Sullivan, and other members of this flack troupe are sure to chime in with their vigorous applause, and with pleas for the media to get back to the real story of George Bush’s crimes against humanity.
Barack Obama has been showing up at Wright’s church for close to 20 years and was exposed to his brand of crackpot racist anti-American lunacy on more than one occasion during this long period. So it is really way too generous, I think, to applaud the Senator for his dramatic “Sister Souljah moment” with his late-to-the party denunciation of Wright. A real Sister Souljah moment would have required leaving Trinity Church before Wright became politically inconvenient for Obama, and not when Wright is beginning to threaten Obama’s bid for the Democratic nomination.
Will Obama’s pivot work politically? If he earns a split on May 6th, winning North Carolina, and losing Indiana, he will have avoided a political freefall. North Carolina is a state with a 21% African American population, and black voters make up about a third of Democratic Party primary voters. Given that Obama has been winning 90% of the vote among blacks, he would need but 30% of the white vote to win a narrow victory in North Carolina.
It is likely that Obama’s team saw a sharp drop-off in white support in North Carolina with the latest Wright feeding frenzy the last few days. While most pundits have been focusing on the perceived tight race in Indiana, and assumed North Carolina was a lock for Obama, the Clinton team has been spending more money on media in North Carolina the last week than in Indiana, and sent Bill Clinton down to work the white rural areas, the same kinds of places where he helped deliver huge margins for Hillary in Pennsylvania.
Then came word that popular Governor Michael Easley was backing Clinton. So suddenly the Clintons are smelling the possibility of a sweep, including an upset in North Carolina, or at the least a very close finish there. These results would put more doubts in the minds of the nearly 300 super delegates who remain uncommitted that the Obama campaign is a train wreck waiting to happen in the general election.
One part of this story that I have not seen discussed is that while the Obama distancing from Wright is aimed at shoring up support among white voters, his campaign seems to take for granted that he will suffer no losses among black voters for his sharp statements Tuesday. In other words, they are counting on black voters winking and nodding their approval of Obama’s words, as if Wright were out there on his own, when in fact he is not, and many ministers and black talk radio hosts speak just as Wright does, and have been doing so for years.
In fact, we have been told repeatedly these last few weeks, that whites just do not understand the black church vernacular, and we live in separate societies on Sundays. This may be true, but Obama is now saying he is not part of that angry chorus on Sundays, and his church’s minister is out of line. Not to play the cynic, but I find this sudden split a bit inauthentic. Senator Obama has told us about Reverend Wright many times before: he was his pastor, his mentor, his moral compass, his sounding board, his teacher. But now Wright has said these horrible things at the National Press Club. And so, he must be sacrificed, at least for the benefit of lower middle income rural white voters in North Carolina and Indiana.
Barack Obama has been able to get away with projecting a different image to different groups as he has risen up the political ladder in Chicago. As long as he was a state senator or even a United States Senator, he could get away with fealty to Reverend Wright, dinner parties at Bill Ayers’ house, all the while assuring white middle class and working class voters that he was a man interested in bipartisanship good government. But as many a politician before him has learned, a presidential race is an entirely different political beast.