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Between Barack and a Hard Place

By Charles Lipson

Barack Obama's speech on racial issues showed him at his best. Serious and inspiring, it was the finest speech on this crucial issue in many years. It was effective politically, too, since it staunched the bleeding. Unfortunately for Obama's candidacy, he has already suffered deep political wounds from his close association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and the damage cannot be undone.

As effective as Obama's speech was, it still evaded the hardest questions, which will linger and rise again in the general election. It soared above the most divisive issue affecting racial politics today, affirmative action. Obama has spoken about that at other times, suggesting that poverty should be added as another criterion for affirmative action, but he has not renounced traditional racially-based programs. The voters have.

The speech also equated his own grandmother's private comments with Rev. Wright's repeated public pronouncements, with their openly racist and anti-American tone, some of them made while the wreckage of 9/11 still entombed the victims.

Obama brought up his grandmother--some will say he cynically used her--to show that both blacks and whites still have hurtful stereotypes of each other. That is surely right, and it is important to say so as part of a larger discussion. But it is also important to remember that Obama only gave this speech because he had been so badly damaged by his preacher's comments. In that context, Obama's references imply that everybody makes excessive and over-the-top remarks at times and that we all share the blame. He reinforced that point with a dig at Hillary's association with Geraldine Ferraro. He was obscuring the issue of Rev. Wright, and his own association to the church, by spreading the blame around.

Obama initially defended himself by saying that he was not in church on the day Rev. Wright spoke his harshest words. As he must have quickly realized, he left himself open to "gotcha" journalism because he did attend Trinity United so many other times and because there are countless DVDs and audio tapes floating around, showing his preacher fulminating Sunday after Sunday. That record will surely be scrutinized by conservative bloggers and opposition researchers. To inoculate himself, Obama has now conceded that he knew that Rev. Wright sometimes made such comments.

That grudging concession raises the hardest question of all for Obama. Why did he choose to worship for two decades in a church whose basic theology is Afrocentric and is heavily laced with anti-white, anti-American, and conspiratorial rhetoric. Why, of all the gin joints in all the world, did he choose that church, that pastor, and that theology? And why did he stay there for virtually all his adult life after law school? He can dance around that, but his answer won't win him any undecided votes. In fact, those voters have been backing away in droves. What many are now realizing is that they don't actually know very much about the junior Senator from Illinois. Now, for the first time, they are worried about what else they don't know, and worried about what this episode reveals about his character and judgment.

Prompted by the discussion Obama launched, they may also notice some important omissions in the speech, aside from any concrete policy initiatives. First, though he condemned Rev. Wright's comments, he did not squarely call them "hate speech." He spoke only about understanding the anger that some older black people feel. He was both sympathetic and disapproving. Fine. But anger about past injustices, however justified, is no excuse for hate speech today. Nor does it excuse the Rev. Wright for spewing factually wrong, paranoid delusions about the US government spreading AIDS, crack cocaine, and so on. Obama should have said that and said it plainly. He did not. He should have labeled Wright's rhetoric as unacceptable hate speech, laced with wrong-headed conspiracy theories.

Second, he missed a chance to follow Bill Cosby's lead and speak about the need for all groups, including those he identifies with, to overcome the public posture of victimization and take greater responsibility for self-improvement, individually and collectively. It was a teachable moment, and he missed it.

On balance, then, it was a fine speech on a painful and divisive topic, but one that, on closer inspection, leaves some gaping holes. Those holes may seem to fade away in a day or two as this story gets old and is replaced by others on the evening news. The mainstream media is already rushing to do that. They fawned over Obama's response. The New York Times titled it editorial "Mr. Obama's Profile in Courage," and compared the candidate to Kennedy, Roosevelt, and Lincoln. But the hard questions were not answered decisively, especially in the minds of independent voters, and those questions will return during the general election. That is good news for Sen. McCain.

Of course, Hillary Clinton would love to seize the opportunity provided by the Rev. Wright story, but she can't. It is simply too dangerous for her to grab this racially-charged issue during the Democratic primary season. Trying for a "Sister Souljah moment" is too risky, and she lacks her husband's skills to pull it off. Obviously, she benefits from Obama's troubles, but at this late stage, there probably aren't enough loose delegates left for her to win. Her situation is even worse if, as now looks likely, there is no do-over in Florida and Michigan.

If Obama gets clobbered in Pennsylvania, which certainly could happen, the Democrats are going to be in deep trouble. They will fear they are stuck with a candidate who cannot win the general election but who cannot be denied the party's nomination. If the Super Delegates try to give that nomination to Hillary, the Party would shatter.

One obvious question now is whether Barack will prove as resilient as Hillary, who is the Energizer bunny of politics. She just keeps going and going. So far, polls show that Obama has retained his core support among younger voters, blacks, and the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party. His support among African Americans is unshakeable. Younger voters continue to be inspired by his candidacy, but, as the campaign gets muddier, they may begin to wonder if he is just another politician. He continues to benefit from the antagonism to Hillary and from the weariness of seeing another Clinton in the White House.

Obama's support remains strong in the left wing of the Democratic Party despite the uproar over Jeremiah Wright. They love Obama's vision, his rhetoric, and his voting record. They know that his views are not those of Rev. Wright. They think it is vital for a liberal to win, that only a liberal can save the Supreme Court, and that Obama offers a real chance to bridge this country's racial divide. They love his pledge to end the Iraq War swiftly, with few equivocations. They say that it is guilt-by-association to bring up Rev. Wright's comments; it is this year's version of Swift Boating, led by Fox News, they say.

But in their hearts and minds (and donor's wallets), even Obama's staunchest supporters must be deeply concerned. As weak as the Republican Party is, saddled with Bush's ineptitude, the never-ending Iraq War, and a teetering economy, the Democrats should be leading decisively in the race for president. They are not. Instead, they are facing a train wreck of identity politics, fueled by the close and hard-fought race between Obama and Clinton. They worry, rightly, that there won't be a quick or clear-cut resolution, especially if Clinton wins Pennsylvania by double digits.

John McCain is fortunate to be out of the country, traveling through the Middle East. He quietly picks up momentum and doesn't even have to comment on this. Who could have thought that walking through Iraq with a flak jacket was the safe place to be?

Charles Lipson is a professor of international politics at the University of Chicago. He has two books coming out next month: Succeeding as an International Student in the United States and Canada, and Doing Honest Work in College, 2nd edition. Both are from the University of Chicago Press.

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