Over the weekend and this morning Barack Obama’s former pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright burst back onto the national scene – this time by his own choice and in full context. In doing so he has created the most significant challenge to Barack Obama’s quest for the presidency. Jeremiah Wright’s reemergence may be fatal to Barack Obama’s candidacy.
Barack Obama, in spite of the Wright controversy, will become the Democratic nominee for president. The challenge to Obama’s candidacy is not fatal for him in the primaries. Hillary Clinton has lost, in spite of the tortured logic of her campaign and her supporters. The damage Wright causes Obama is in the general election.
Speaking this morning at the National Press Club Jeremiah Wright went beyond his measured interview with Bill Moyers over the weekend. Reverend Wright who in the PBS interview made the case for reconciliation today became combative during the question and answer session. When asked why he was speaking out now, he said:
On November the 5th and on January 21st, I’ll still be a pastor. As I said, this is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright. It has nothing to do with Senator Obama. It is an attack on the black church launched by people who know nothing about the African-American religious tradition.
And why am I speaking out now? In our community, we have something called playing the dozens. If you think I’m going to let you talk about my mama and her religious tradition, and my daddy and his religious tradition, and my grandma, you’ve got another thing coming.
Then Reverend Wright explained away Barack Obama’s landmark Philadelphia speech as what politicians do:
What I mean is what several of my white friends and several of my white, Jewish friends have written me and said to me. They’ve said, "You’re a Christian. You understand forgiveness. We both know that, if Senator Obama did not say what he said, he would never get elected."
Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls, Huffington, whoever’s doing the polls. Preachers say what they say because they’re pastors. They have a different person to whom they’re accountable.
As I said, whether he gets elected or not, I’m still going to have to be answerable to God November 5th and January 21st. That’s what I mean. I do what pastors do. He does what politicians do.
I am not running for office. I am hoping to be vice president.
However, what Reverend Wright doesn’t seem to realize is that he was not speaking as a pastor this morning – he had entered the realm of politics. By bringing this controversy firmly into the political mainstream he has taken what was a distraction and made it a central issue in this campaign. He has put Barack Obama in a precarious position.
By his combative tone today, Reverend Wright has undercut Senator Obama’s message of change and racial reconciliation. Wright has transformed what was merely an issue of Obama’s pastor making incendiary remarks on YouTube into a black versus white issue. Reverend Wright took the bait of those making political hay and gave them more haymaking fodder. He has turned the issue into an attack on black churches rather than what was a political attack on Barack Obama.
To win in November, Barack Obama will have to distance himself from Reverend Wright’s tone. As Obama explained in Philadelphia, frustration exists across the racial divide. It is the way Obama chose to address that frustration that distinguished Obama from Wright and made him such an appealing candidate. Now Obama will be forced to push Wright further away just as Wright seems bent on tying himself to Obama.
The danger for Obama is that this time as he pushes Wright away he risks alienating the African American vote. Wright has portrayed the controversy as an attack on the black church. Obama’s task is to put distance between himself and Reverend Wright without risking his strong base of support in the African American community – a constituency without whose strong support at the polls no Democrat can win the general election. In Philadelphia last month, Obama had to reassure white voters that he was who he said he was. This time he has trouble on both sides. Trouble created, it seems quite intentionally, in the last few days by Jeremiah Wright.
How Barack Obama handles this moment will likely determine whether he becomes the next President of the United States. On the issues, Barack Obama has the better of the argument against John McCain. In November if he runs against McCain he wins. The Republicans’ only chance this November is to make the election about race. Jeremiah Wright has now given the Republicans a giant opening. Barack Obama needs to move this election past race and onto the issues. If he cannot he will lose in November.
This is a defining moment in this campaign. It is likely that this week, as Barack Obama responds to Jeremiah Wright, he will win or lose the presidency.