Politics & Policy

Philadelphia Story

Obama on race.

Tuesday morning, Senator Barack Obama, presidential candidate for the Democratic party, delivered a speech on race in Philadelphia. National Review Online asked a group of experts in response: “Did Barack Obama do what he needed to do in Philadelphia today?” Here are their assessments.

Andrew E. Busch

It is too early to tell whether Barack Obama succeeded. What he needed to do was to move the campaign discussion off of Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Even more, he needed to stem the flow of questions about how much of Wright’s political thinking he shares.

Obama tied himself to the American Founders and declared his faith “in the decency and generosity of the American people.” It was the sort of speech that will persuade those who want to be persuaded. He will lose few of his Democratic supporters.

It is hard-headed undecided Democratic officials that he most desperately needed to persuade today, though, as well as his non-Democratic supporters and swing voters in the general electorate. The speech may prove a tougher sell for them.

A certain disingenuousness hung over it. Although Obama rejected Wright’s statements, he spent an enormous amount of time explaining them. When Obama conceded that “Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong, they were divisive,” he seemed to imply that being divisive was worse than being wrong — or perhaps that Wright was more divisive than he was wrong. At any rate, Obama did not really explain how he could be shocked and dismayed by the statements of his pastor of 20 years.

Perhaps more importantly, there is only so much one speech can do. Objective realities intrude. We have only begun to scratch of the surface of Reverend Wright’s fulminations. Wright is likely to be the gift that keeps on giving. Obama is testing the proposition that a speech can staunch YouTube. We’ll see.

– Andrew E. Busch is associate dean and professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

Alvin S. Felzenberg

Today we may have witnessed the beginning of the end of Barack Obama’s once-stunning campaign for the presidency. Not for the first time, the Illinois senator demonstrated, for all to see, that he is not qualified to service as the nation’s president — at least, to paraphrase Mr. Obama, “not this time.”

What the nation saw today was a candidate too self-absorbed to fulfill the promise of national unity and reconciliation he has repeatedly made since he launched what has to have been the longest-running ego trip in the history of presidential politics. Rather than tell his listeners precisely what he finds so objectionable in his “former pastor’s” remarks (other than his having to account for his friendship with a bigot), Obama repeatedly resorted to the old standard that political charlatans have used through the centuries: ideological equivalence.

He condemns with equal vigor a stupid remark that Geraldine Ferraro — a self-admitted “affirmative action” vice-presidential candidate of yesteryear — made during an interview for a publication that no one can name, with a series of sermons delivered from the pulpit by a man who (as Obama reminds us) has lectured at some of the most prestigious seminaries in the world. He equates public declarations of hate (including a prayer that the nation Obama proclaims to love and wants to lead should be damned) with a private remark his grandmother purportedly made. (What does it say about the character of a man who would “out” as a racist a dead relative whom he credits with helping to raise him, just to make a political point — and a bad one at that?)

Senator Obama revealed just how little he knows about the nation he will not be privileged to lead next year when he described the coalition that twice elected Ronald Reagan president in record landslides as the coming together of angry and resentful whites. In Obama’s world, double-digit inflation, high interest rates, high unemployment, a 13-month “hostage crisis,” and accelerated Soviet adventurism had little or nothing to do with it.

Anyone who believes that is not qualified to serve as the nation’s next president. But I repeat myself.

Alvin S. Felzenberg is author of the forthcoming, Leaders We Deserved and a Few We Didn’t: Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game (Basic Books).

Michael G. Franc

The “Sister Souljah” moment slipped through Obama’s hands.

The senator began well. In his moving and inspiring introduction, he reminded us that he has relations “of every hue scattered on three continents,” and that his multi-racial and international heritage makes him uniquely qualified to heal a racially divided nation. But he shouldn’t have stopped there.

The stage was set for a bold proposal that would go a long way toward putting our racial divisions behind us.

Imagine if he had said that, as president, he would move to end all the lingering race preferences scattered throughout our federal laws. Or imagine if he had pledged to use school choice to liberate the millions of low-income children of all racial hues from our nation’s failing schools. He could have. But he didn’t.

It’s inevitable that race preferences will ultimately disappear. It’s inevitable that parents will tire of the excuses of public school bureaucrats and demand real educational options for their children. And it seems inevitable that the transformative politician who leads us out of this wilderness will boast a racial heritage not altogether different from Obama’s.

Inevitable, maybe, but not this time.

–Mike Franc is the Heritage Foundation’s vice president of government relations.

Peter Kirsanow

Obama delivered his usual soaring, well-delivered — at times, even magnificent — rhetoric. But ultimately, he hit a single when he needed a home run.

The Illinois senator needed to do three things to rid himself of the stench caused by his 23-year association with a man whose rhetoric evokes Louis Farrakhan on methamphetamines:

1. Unequivocally repudiate not just the racist and anti-Semitic statements of Rev. Wright, but the attitudes and beliefs conveyed thereby;

2. Reject Rev. Wright’s anti-American statements and assure voters that he passionately loves America with all its faults;

3. Somehow convince the electorate that his long and close association with Rev. Wright — including donating thousands of dollars to his church — was not an egregious error in judgment bearing upon his fitness to be president.

He did the first two reasonably well, but failed miserably on the third.

Obama acknowledged hearing Wright make controversial statements, although not as offensive as those played recently on television. But he never explained why he hadn’t immediately confronted Wright at that time. And his suggestion that Wright’s statements were the product of surviving as a black man in the environment of the Fifties and Sixties, that one shouldn’t be surprised to hear them in a black church, is a calumny: most black Americans of Wright’s age, however wronged they might’ve been, no matter how bitter they have reason to be, would never say “God damn America,” particularly in the days after 9/11. Furthermore, few churches — black or white, regardless of denomination — would long retain their congregations if their pastors raged that America brought 9/11 on itself and that we created the AIDS virus.

Convincing Americans that his association with Wright wasn’t spectacularly bone-headed probably couldn’t have been done, even with Obama’s gifts of oratory. Not when he remained in the church for 20 years. Not when he gave thousands of dollars to it. Not when his wife’s comments about her pride in America, shall we say, fail to sufficiently distinguish her views from Wright’s outright antipathy toward America.

America is an amazingly tolerant place. You can live here and still damn her. You can accuse her of all manner of evil. You can even cheer when her citizens are butchered.

But if you seek to be America’s president, you better, at minimum, ruthlessly repudiate anyone who blames us for 9/11. Moreover, if you seek to command the bravest men and women in the world in the fight against the perpetrators of 9/11, you should have immediately gotten into Wright’s face and rebuked him for his vile comments.

Senator, it’s genuinely admirable not to disown your friend, but you cannot rationalize his comments. And it wouldn’t have hurt your candidacy grievously to have confessed that you wished that, when he’d made the inflammatory comments, you had popped the good reverend in the nose.

– Peter Kirsanow is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. These comments do not necessarily represent the positions of the Commission.

Kathryn Jean Lopez

I think Barack Obama was as honest as he could be today. He didn’t distance himself from Jeremiah Wright. He couldn’t. He couldn’t because he knew full well who and what Wright is and — I can only guess — he couldn’t distance himself because, in fundamental ways, Obama agrees with him.

I walk away from listening to that speech worried now more than ever that Barack Obama shares too many of Wright’s radical, angry views. And I worry that Barack Obama fundamentally believes that America is great as long as Americans elect Barack Obama president.

Did Barack Obama do what he needed to do today? If his goal was to pick at white guilt and make Democrats and super-delegates feel bad that they were considering going back to Mrs. Once-Inevitable (that was his goal, I think: he was, after all, in Pennsylvania, home to the next primary), then yes, he did exactly what he set out to do. But, as Rush Limbaugh (whom Obama hit in a Right drive-by in his Wright speech, a rare taste of red meat from the saccharine senator) put it today on his radio show, he also marked a line in the sand, essentially saying, My campaign is about race. If you thought he was going to get us beyond divisive politics, you were wrong. It’s what his campaign is based on.

– Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor of National Review Online.

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