After days of largely ignoring the media blitz his former pastor has waged, reversed course and denounced the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in the strongest and most direct terms yet on Tuesday. It was a decision that may help him reclaim some of the initiative in a tight presidential primary contest, but it is not without risks.
The decision to specifically address Wright's controversial statements came after the campaign maintained for days that Obama had said all he had to say on the subject - a sign that there has been growing concern that the controversy was damaging his candidacy. The result was not just a denunciation of Wright's comments, but of the man who attracted Obama into the Trinity United Church of Christ, married him and baptized his children.
The turning point was Wright's combative appearance in Washington yesterday at the national press club, where he stood by the comments he has claimed were taken out of context in press accounts over the past months. Wright maintained that the U.S. government was capable of acts of horror such as spreading AIDS through the black community, accused the government of committing terrorism abroad and called criticisms of such remarks an attack on the "black church."
"I am outraged by the comments that were made and saddened by the spectacle that we saw yesterday," Obama said in a last-minute press conference today. The candidate said that after watching Wright's appearance from Monday, "what became clear to me was that he was presenting a world view that contradicts what I am and what I stand for."
Hitting on most of the major points in specific terms, Obama said "there are no excuses" for such comments. "They offended me. They rightly offend all Americans and they should be denounced."
In his much-heralded address on race relations after Wright's earlier comments began gaining wide circulation last month, Obama pointedly denounced the comments but not the man. That position changed today. Calling Wright's appearance Monday a "performance," Obama went further, saying his remarks "were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate."
With potentially pivotal contests looming in North Carolina and Indiana, the focus of the Democratic contest has been on Obama's political weaknesses. For weeks, questions revolved around pressure onto drop out of the race. But after her sizable win in Pennsylvania, the pressure has shifted to Obama to demonstrate he can deliver a knock-out punch.
He needs to show not only that he can attract the kind of blue-collar, "Reagan Democrat" vote that has kept Clinton afloat in the race but also demonstrate to those all-important superdelegates who will decide the nomination that he has what it takes to win in November. Part of that is proving that he can handle the kind of crisis that Wright has become for his campaign.
In taking such an aggressive stand Obama may succeed in publicly distancing himself from the spectacle that the Rev. Wright has become, but his newfound outrage raises some further questions. In his Philadelphia address, Obama stood by his friend. "As imperfect as he may be," he said of Wright a month ago, "he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. … I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community."
In today's press conference, Obama said he sought in his earlier speech to "provide a context and to lift up some of the contradictions and complexities of race in America," but that he found Wright's comments Monday to be a "bunch of rants that that aren't grounded in truth." But many of Wright's "rants" were simply a confirmation of many of the statements which had stirred up controversy in the first place.
Despite his appropriate outrage over Wright's performances of late, Obama's claim that his longtime pastor is exhibiting new behavior is certain to come under scrutiny. "The person I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago," Obama insisted today. That comment, and any suggestion that the relationship between the two men was never as close as portrayed, are questionable.
Some of Wright's remarks that sparked this mess were made over five years ago, specifically his oft-played comment that the nation's "chickens" were "coming home to roost," which he made shortly after 9/11. Obama has indicated Wright was instrumental in attracting him to the church he joined and has said he titled his book, "The Audacity of Hope," after one of Wright's sermons. That 20-year relationship will not be easily broken as a result of one afternoon press conference.
"What I think particularly angered me," Obama said of Wright on Monday, "was his suggestion somehow that my previous denunciation of his remarks were somehow political posturing."
In a New York Times profile of the Obama-Wright relationship in April 2007, Wright himself predicted such a split based on the controversial remarks that were already under some scrutiny. "If Barack gets past the primary, he might have to publicly distance himself from me," Wright told the paper over a year ago. "I said it to Barack personally, and he said yeah, that might have to happen."
Whether Obama's strong words of denunciation today were sincere or "political posturing" will be decided by the remaining Democratic primary voters, the party's superdelegates and, perhaps, the national electorate. But it's not a discussion that is likely to disappear entirely from the public's consciousness.
By Vaughn Ververs