Some of President Obama's more vehement critics are getting what they wanted after all—renewed media attention to his association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of Obama's church in Chicago whose racially incendiary views have embarrassed Obama before.
Even though the principal players say they don't want the issue to play a big role in the presidential campaign, the media have been covering the latest episode heavily, with the result that the supercharged issue of race has already been re-injected into the national debate.
A furor erupted when the New York Times reported Thursday that wealthy businessman Joe Ricketts was considering a plan to spend $10 million this fall for an ad campaign resurrecting the Obama-Wright story.
It didn't take long for Ricketts to publicly nix the campaign, and for the major candidates and their supporters to wade into the fray. Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney told reporters, "I repudiate that effort" and said it was the "wrong course" for a political action committee or campaign. Romney tried to turn the tables by arguing that it was the Obama campaign that was engaging in "character assassination" by trying to portray him on other issues as a heartless capitalist. Obama campaign officials said Romney's response was tepid, and Obama manager Jim Messina said the Republicans are going to "appalling lengths" to "tear down the president and elect Mitt Romney."
All of this was more than enough to prompt extensive news coverage that resurrected the Wright-Obama link, especially on conservative-oriented outlets such as Fox News. Other television networks and major newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post also did major stories. And there is no guarantee that other political action committees or political figures won't make another run at the Wright-Obama association, and racial matters, in the future.
As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama struggled to keep his distance from the Wright issue after it was revealed that the pastor had preached sermons harshly criticizing the United States for arrogance and racial prejudice. Wright said black people had been badly mistreated and added: "The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America—that's in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme." Eventually, Obama disavowed Wright's statements and resigned from Wright's church.
Since he has been president, Obama has tried, with a few exceptions, to keep the race issue at a distance, even refusing to adopt an agenda specifically designed for African Americans, which many black activists favor. In my recent book, Family of Freedom: Presidents and African Americans in the White House, I discussed Obama's goal of leading a race-neutral administration. In an interview for that book, he rejected the demands of African activists and others for a "black agenda," arguing that his overall policies would benefit everyone, including African Americans. "My main goal is to be the best possible president and help to put the country on the best possible track going forward," he said. "...I've always been of the view that if you are able to close the gap in the economic status of African Americans relative to the general population that that would do more than any race commission or explicit race-based strategy to reduce tensions. And so the legacy I hope to leave is a more prosperous, more secure, more confident America. And if that happens, then I think you're also going to see continued improvement in race relations in this country."
Obama added: "The reason I don't feel torn in two directions on this debate is because I actually believe that right now the same things that would most help African Americans are the same things that would help the society at large." He was referring to programs designed to improve education, create jobs, and reform health care.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" and is the author of "The Presidency" column in the U.S. News digital weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter and Facebook.
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