4/29/2008

Wrong Approach, Wright Results

The big political story today concerns Barack Obama's public and emphatic rejection of his longtime pastor and spiritual adviser Jeremiah Wright. This pastor has become a major political liability for Obama, so it is no surprise that he had to divorce him so publicly.

I have avoided writing much about Wright because his unpredictability would make any analysis of his remarks have limited validity. But because today's developments appear to be the last major chapter in this complicated nexus of religion and politics, it is reasonably safe to tackle this issue now.

Regarding my personal beliefs about the pastor, I believe Jeremiah Wright makes a few valid and powerful points, even if they are not what mainstream America is comfortable hearing at times. However, his delivery and confrontational style often overshadow the substance of the message he's trying to convey. Jeremiah Wright suffers from the same problem that prevents supposed Black spokesmen Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton from being taken seriously by the broader populace. All three of them put mainstream America on the defensive with their accusative rhetoric and their tendency to absolve themselves of any responsibility for improving the lives of their constituents, thus preventing the very people they want to reach from actually listening to what they have to say.

Most pundits are saying that Wright and Obama are angry at each other. Wright feels disrespected by Obama and the media. Obama feels betrayed by Wright for sabotaging his campaign at the worst possible time. Others simply think Wright is absolutely crazy. However, unlike most pundits, I believe Jeremiah Wright knows exactly what he's doing, and Obama should be grateful for it. I don't think this is about increasing his profile so he can sell books or drive up his own church's membership. Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama have a relationship that goes back about 20 years. He introduced Obama to Jesus Christ and officiated his wedding ceremony. This is not a relationship that can be destroyed by a few high octane speeches and a spate of controversial interview remarks. Wright clearly supports Obama and reminded everyone of his loyalty to his campaign as recently as his speech at the NAACP dinner a few days ago.

Wright knows that he, Obama, and Obama's electoral appeal are not compatible. The more the media and pundits focus on Wright's incendiary remarks and Obama's tepid and insufficient rejections of these remarks, the worse it is for Obama's campaign. Wright knows this. And because of his long friendship with Obama, he couldn't possibly want Obama's campaign to fail. It is quite possible that Wright is simply being selfish. However, I also believe his "going off the rails" and further muddying the waters with yet more controversial remarks served not to draw attention to himself as a way to drag Obama down or give himself a few extra minutes of fame, but rather to benefit Obama in the long run:

1. Obama got to come down on the side of popular opinion by flatly rejecting him. Even his harshest critics who were unsatisfied with his previous lukewarm statements of disapproval should be placated by his firm rejection of Wright today. For some voters, it may very well be "too little, too late." However, for other voters, it will be "better late than never" or "it's about time." That's far better than "what's taking him so long?"

2. Obama got to look strong in his rejection of Wright. Doubts about his strength and toughness have dogged him for months. So this helps improve his political image. After all, if he can't stand up to his own pastor, how can he stand up to our nation's enemies?

3. Obama got to put this controversy behind him. Anyone who dredges this up again will do so at his own peril because Wright and Obama have essentially gotten divorced. Obama made sure to remind everyone that Wright's future remarks should no longer be attributed to Obama's own beliefs. And in the event that Wright self-destructs again, Obama has an easy way to deal with it: "I've already flatly rejected Wright and have said that he does not speak for me or my campaign. Let's move on."

4. Obama got to look reasonable in comparison to "this loony pastor." And the crazier Wright's remarks became, the better they actually made Obama look. Nobody knows how much overlap there is between himself and Wright, but at least Obama is not going around accusing the federal government of introducing AIDS into Black communities. The reels of tape showcasing Obama's eloquence and appeals for unity make Wright look more like "the crazy uncle" Obama has referred to many times before. And as an added bonus, so to speak, Wright is looking more like a kook in the minds of the electorate than a racist. While neither label is good, I would venture that it's at least marginally better to be seen as a fool than a bigot.

5. Obama can now say to nervous or uncommitted superdelegates that his "pastor problem" has been resolved, thus improving his electibility. The chances of rival Hillary Clinton winning the nomination took a big hit because the potency of one of her biggest weapons has just been reduced significantly.

6. Republicans who continue to invoke Wright will likely be tarred with "fearmongering" or "race-baiting" from now on, which is usually not a winning proposition. That will provide a perfect foil for Obama's message of positive governance and unity. Moderates and independents will be less likely to respond to this Republican "red meat" because in their minds, Obama has done all he could reasonably be expected to do regarding resolving this problem.

7. Obama can finally get back on message in time to deal Hillary Clinton her death blow in North Carolina and Indiana. Losing Indiana would probably keep Clinton in the game. And because Obama is not expected to win the upcoming contests in Kentucky and West Virginia, Clinton could seize a bit of momentum which would prompt more "is Obama fading?"-type stories. Getting past Wright gives him a fighting chance of preventing this from happening.

Nobody really knows what's going on in Wright's mind or what his true intentions were, but I believe Wright is more intelligent than what he's given credit for. By essentially sacrificing his own brand image, he did Barack Obama a huge political favor.

16 comment(s):

Nikki said...

I defineately disagree. I think Wright is self serving and Obama was visibly hurt today in his press conference. JW's rhetoric is hurting Obama and I actually felt bad for Obama today and thought what the Reverend was doing was over the top. Many conservatives were hopping on the 20 years and he didn't know he was like this bandwagon...but I felt to the contrary, that he was tired of the reverend and wanted him to shut it already. :)N

Anthony Palmer said...

Nikki,

JW was definitely hurting Obama and dragging down the campaign. The point I was trying to make is that this may turn out to be a net positive for Obama for the reasons I listed at the end of the post. Unless JW is borderline insane, I think he knew exactly what he was doing, perhaps with the hope that Obama would do exactly what he did yesterday by rejecting him so Obama could get his campaign back on track. That's where the net positive comes from.

Reginald Harrison Williams said...

Despite Obama's perceived hypocrisy (yes, hypocrisy), I think Hillary is done for after NC with or without "The Wright Results." She will be just too far behind, and I still think superdelegates will coalesce behind the person with the most delegates/popular vote come June (Obama) for face super duper turmoil in the party. R.I.P. HRC.

I do agree with Nikki on one point: Wright is self serving,...but not so much to his reputation, but more to his own role as a pastor to his flock. He MUST (as a servant of God) speak the truth, no matter if he offends the Obama, McCain, Clinton, Bush, me, or you. For a Christian, you cannot compromise on your faith and convictions because it makes someone uncomfy who you love. If Wright shows that his message is influenced by "friends" and politics, he will lose his reputation as a pastor (a much graver problem than anything in this world can do to him).

Unfortunately, Obama's real problems with Pastor Wright's pastoral duty will be responding to the GOP's attacks on his possible "flip-flopping" on this idea.

Obama's ship will probably stay above the Waves of Hillary; however, unless he works fast to get back on point (which I think will take a while to see), it will continue to sink in the Red Sea of the GOP .

Brett said...

Keep in mind, though, that the criticism of Obama via Wright has meta-sized, so to speak; you see people still saying, "Well, he knew him for 20 years" even though Obama has denounced Wright. I agree that this allows Obama to have a more firm put-down of this nonsense when and if it re-occurs, but I still think the impression is going to be there in a lot of voters' minds.

I suppose we can just be grateful (we Obama-supporters, at least)that a large part of the population that would be bothered by Wright's rhetoric to the point of not voting for Obama don't troll the Internet watching videos of Wright on Youtube; they tend to get their main news from a newspaper or television.

Incidently, Anthony, I read the transcript of Wright's speech, and while I disagree with some of his remarks, I don't think he's totally crazy, either. In particular, I don't understand the fuss over what he said about Malcolm X; from what I read, he simply said that Malcolm X was/is an important figure in the black community, and when he speaks, many American blacks (whether they agree with him or not), listen.

Schenck said...

Though Obama kind of looks like a hypocrite/flip-flopper on Wright (luring more "20-years" attacks), this will settle a few people who are still on the fence. Wright knows what he's doing. Read any transcript of any of his sermons; he's an intelligent, spiritual, passionate guy, yet occasionally a bit crass. Fortunately for us (ahem, Obama supporters), this latest episode should appeal to those "traditional blue-collar Dems," disaffected Republicans, and on-the-fence Independents, groups he needs to "close the deal" now and in November.

Dominic said...

I watched Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead again. It reminded me how fantastic poorly acted theater can be, even at the National Press Club!

I turned on MSNBC to "Morning Joe", all they were talking about is the black community and how this is hurting it. They had a black preacher on to make the more "suggestive" and "touchy" comments that Scarborough himself couldn't make without an "Imus style" beating from the rest of the press. As usual, the guests views were inline with Scarborough, who nodded his head and agreed every time the preacher said, "This man (JW) does not represent "The Black Church".

Which got me thinking, "There's only ONE black church in all of North America!?" I really must be out of touch with the Black Community because I sure didn't know that THE BLACK CHURCH was a single entity! I always thought that it was a P.C. way of referring to church going African Americans as a whole demographic for statistical and political references and rhetoric. You can't believe my embarrassment!

The only racism I see, the only bias I hear, comes largely from those in the Mass Media who claim to be taking an "objective look" (no offense Prof. Palmer) at the candidates controversy as a whole. Having some experience with print journalism, I find that the only people who really care about this kind of a "scandal" are the reporters themselves, for better or worse. Most people just don't care until it's sensationalized like a rabid 4 year old, screaming, "LOOK WHAT I CAN DID!" over and over again.

I guess all the momentous praise for being the first black man to be seriously considered for President has had enough time to settle down, and we can now overlook the fact that he has been one of the most honest politicians, not to mention the most casual. He smokes, plays basketball, and will damn you if you interrupt him while he eats waffles (so would I).

I guess my point is...what a minute...what was that noise?

Can you hear it? The lace drapery ruffling and slipping, falling down from its ancient resting place. The old and setteled dust suddenly rushes into the air, engulfing the darkness.
*GASP* DID YOU HEAR IT? A snap! It sounds like electricity jolting through the body once again! Yes!

HE'S ALIVE...sort of! Goodness, me-oh-my, heavens to Betsy and Mergatroid! Strom Thurmond is now rolling in his grave!

Anthony Palmer said...

Schenck/Brett,

Looks like we agree that JW is a lot sharper than what pundits and the media seem to give him credit for. I think a lot of people tend to think that just because somebody comes across as a wacko because of the way they present their message, that person is automatically stupid. I've listened to some of Wright's sermons and speeches before and a lot of what he says has real validity. You just have to be patient enough to get past that. I am not quite sure America is ready to accept some of these ideas just yet though, and that's part of what made him such a liability for Obama.

You just can't throw out a 20-year relationship in the span of six weeks. That's why I don't buy the idea that Wright was stabbing Obama in the back. I think Wright essentially sacrificed himself to save Obama's campaign. Remember, Wright wasn't even an issue at all in this campaign until those videos surfaced. I think by self-destructing, Wright took it upon himself to bring a quicker end to this saga--to Obama's benefit. I wouldn't be surprised if both Obama and Wright "reconciled" somewhere down the road out of "forgiveness."

Wright might seem crazy, but I don't think he's stupid by any means. Had Wright simply just shut up and gone away, the issue would not have gone away. Wright forced Obama to end it definitively, to his political advantage.

Wright's sudden flameout is the best thing that could have happened to Obama.

namaste said...

anthony, i'm going to have to disagree with you on this entire post, especially your statement about jw and obama's relationship not being over because they share 20 years. wright's actions are too intentional and malicious to be interpreted as eventual good publicity for obama.

i think obama's chances for presidency has just been dashed completely by jw's contentious press conference. obama comes off looking like a man of either terrible judgement or a man who is dishonest.

~m

Anthony Palmer said...

Namaste,

Obama said that the Jeremiah Wright that's been speaking over the past few days is "not the same person he's known for 20 years." I don't know if it's true, but at the very least it seems plausible because if Wright had been making similar incendiary remarks during those 20 years, they would have come out earlier instead of this "drip drip drip."

Wright was obviously a net negative for Obama, but I think his self-destruction was a good thing. The upside for Obama is that Wright forced him to end this issue decisively. Had Wright simply kept quiet and tried to go away, the questions would have lingered--to Obama's detriment. But Obama finally spoke out (even if maybe not by choice), and spoke out firmly. So that leads to the 7 advantages I mentioned in the original post.

I think most people are ready to move on now, so Obama should be able to get back on message a bit sooner. Those who will permanently hold this against him were probably never going to vote for him anyway. Wright may have been a dealbreaker for some voters, but I'm sure there are many other voters for whom Obama was a total nonstarter before any of this happened.

Phillip said...

Anthony, I agree as to most of the positive outcome of this for Obama...I really think he will squeak through to the nomination, but that if the Republicans keep trying to "go to the well" on this all the way to November, it will be disastrous for them, especially as economic conditions continue to decay in this country, and as Iraq will continue to be status quo. It's all good that this is happening now, and not in October.

However, I disagree with your implication that Wright planned this all along to give Obama some maneuvering room. The results may be as you say, but I think the motivation was personal.

Thomas said...

I have to disagree, Anthony. I think Reverend Wright is playing the classic role of the veteran who doesn't like feeling upstaged by the young protege-upstart. Reverend Wright is the star of his church. He has achieved great success and visibility in his field of work. To see this young guy not give Reverend Wright the respect he thinks he deserves means the gloves are coming off.

I think this will continue to be a problem for Senator Obama even as John McCain smartly condemns "Reverend Wright ads." Reverend Wright will pop up in the media from here on to November. And many people will think, "Sure Obama says he disowns Reverend Wright but he is only saying that because he is running for president. Before it was painful for Obama to know Wright, he didn't denounce what Wright was saying." Obama's denouncement of Reverend Wright means less than people think.

Thomas said...

Are you going to be writing about David Vitter anytime soon, Anthony?

Anonymous said...

I wonder why is it an issue when Obama didn't leave his church for 20 years due to the sermons he may have heard that were offensive to some and you have catholics staying in their church after the priest are accused of child molestation. Is it only because he's running for president?

Anthony Palmer said...

Anonymous,

Well, the problem for Obama is that when you run for President, any and everything will receive a magnifying glass. Sometimes people have legitimate questions, sometimes it's about garnering ratings or increasing readership in the media, and sometimes it's sensationalism. Double standards are quite common in politics, as John McCain's relatively unscrutinized courting of the Falwell-Dobson-Robertson wing of the party suggests.

I, for one, don't care much about Wright or his sermons. But a lot of people do, and I'm sure they would rather know about this stuff now than after the race was decided and Obama's name was on the general election ballot. These kinds of controversies are common fare in politics, so politicians, especially presidential aspirants, had better learn how to deal with them. Even though I personally thought this whole Wright-stuff was stupid, I thought Obama's handling of it was politically inept.

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Thomas,

I suppose I could write about Vitter in light of the DC Madam's suicide, but I wasn't planning on doing so. Or perhaps I could open the floor and let someone else do so. I'm still thinking about allowing guests to post here.

Thomas said...

Maybe I should write something about David Vitter for you, Anthony. I just think it's a disgrace that he is still in the United States Senate.

I don't think John McCain is getting as much scrutiny for his religious extremists connections because his ties to John Hagee and his courting of Jerry Falwell aren't long-term relationships akin to Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright.

If anything, John McCain should be scrutinized for his flip-flopping on religious extremists and their views.

Thomas said...

Anonymous, I am a Catholic and many Catholics I know were madder than hell about the pedophile priest scandal. These are the people who trusted the church with their most precious possessions, their children. There are a lot of Catholic churches so the chances of your priest being a pedophile were relatively small. But to think there was a chance at all made some of my Catholic friends step away from the church.