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Obama's Rationale for Bid in Jeopardy Over Wright

By Tom Bevan

Early yesterday afternoon word broke that Barack Obama would be giving a "major speech" in Phildadelphia today addressing "the larger issue of race in this campaign." The hasty announcement underscores the treacherous political ground Obama finds himself on just days after ABC News ran a four-minute segment highlighting some of the hate-filled language of his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

So far, Obama's attempts to squelch the controversy surrounding Reverend Wright's incendiary rhetoric have failed. Obama will take another stab at trying to defuse the issue today, and whether he succeeds or not will depend on what he says and how it's received by the media and the public.

The problem Obama faces is simple but stark: in announcing his bid for the White House, the junior Senator from Illinois promised a "new kind of politics" built around a post-racial and, to a lesser degree, a post-partisan unity and harmony. Over the course of the campaign he has also asserted repeatedly that experience is less important than judgment - a claim he backs up in every instance by referring to his 2002 speech against Iraq.

But after this week's revelation about Wright, Obama's 20-year relationship with the pastor calls into question his promise of a post-racial era in American politics and his judgment, thus undermining the two core rationales of his candidacy.

Obama's handling of the controversy has only raised more questions. Juxtaposed with clips of Wright's shocking diatribes in ABC News report, for example, was an undated video clip of Obama describing his church as not "particularly controversial." Nor did Obama's claim of never having been in the pews at Trinity Church when Reverend Wright said something incendiary or controversial seem completely believable. As others have noted, Obama was not totally oblivious to Wright's reputation: in February 2007 Obama rescinded an invitation (at the last minute) for Wright to give the invocation at Obama's official announcement in Springfield.

The fact that there doesn't appear to be any record of Obama ever protesting or condemning any of Wright's outrageous utterances over the years - until confronted with them this week - is particularly lethal to Obama because it only adds to the suspicions that he's less a principled agent of change than a pragmatic politician trying to have it both ways.

Obama's various attempts at brushing the controversy aside (Wright is like a crazy uncle, he comes from a different generation, no guilt by association) have all fallen short because none of them live up to the expectations and the rationales he laid out as a candidate to be President of the United States.

Put another way, Obama has been busy preaching a new kind of politics but failed to stand up after his preacher told the congregation on the Sunday after September 11 that "America's chickens have come home to roost." Seven years later Obama remains a member of the church, and just last year was still publicly praising Reverend Wright as a "great leader."

Obama will no doubt reiterate his denunciation of Wright's rhetoric today, but it may be too late. The nature of Obama's longstanding relationship with Wright and the timing of this revelation mean the die is already cast, and no amount of backpedaling or massaging can totally undo the damage to Obama's image.

Obama is a truly gifted orator, and we should expect nothing less than a brilliantly crafted and persuasive speech today. But even bringing all of his immense talents to bear, the best he can hope for is to contain the damage and limit the fallout. Once the speech is done, however, the nagging questions about Obama's relationship with Reverend Wright will almost certainly remain, and the public will struggle to reconcile Obama's message of hope co-existing with Reverend Wright's language of hate.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email:

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