In the critical days leading up to the Indiana and North Carolina primaries on Tuesday, Sen. Barack Obama finds himself in the unenviable position of having to defend his role in the ongoing controversy surrounding his former pastor Jeremiah A. Wright. It is a stark contrast to opponents Sen. Hillary Clinton, who is spending her time empathizing with voters’ economic woes, or Sen. John McCain, who is talking about healthcare and making a poverty tour of neglected areas of the country.
Following his eloquent and thoughtful speech on race in March, Obama likely hoped that he’d put the Wright saga to rest. Then, as the Illinois senator was attempting to convince voters in the upcoming primary states that he’s not the elitist he’s been painted to be, Wright implied in a PBS interview with Bill Moyers that Obama’s race speech had been made for political expediency. Wright continued with a fiery speech a few days later at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., which fueled additional doubt about Obama’s views and his relationship with Wright. Obama was then forced to completely divorce himself from Wright, who had officiated at his wedding and baptized his daughters, calling the reverend’s remarks “divisive and destructive.”
“What became clear to me is that he was presenting a world view that contradicts who I am and what I stand for. And what I think particularly angered me was his suggestion somehow that my previous denunciation of his remarks were somehow political posturing. Anybody who knows me and anybody who knows what I’m about knows that I am about trying to bridge gaps and I see the commonality in all people,” Obama said at a news conference.
Wright’s appearances have indeed had an adverse effect in his former parishioner’s presidential campaign. According to an April 30 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of Democratic voters, the margin between Obama and Clinton had tightened to just a few points, at 46 to 43.
“It’s definitely having a couple of effects. One is the opportunity cost in that the Obama campaign isn’t talking about its general campaign message. He’s being forced to concentrate on the third rail of politics, which is race,” says Vincent Hutchings, a political science professor at the University of Michigan. “Although his speech in March was received well by some, it’s noteworthy that prior to that, Obama had gone out of his way to avoid discussing race because many white voters, even in the Democratic primary, are turned off by such a discussion. Wright’s statements are once again highlighting issues of race and in light of the racial attitudes of the American public, that’s something that would make it difficult for any black candidate to be successful.”
Obama likely sensed early on that his relationship with Wright might become problematic when he chose to not include him at his announcement to seek the Democratic presidential nomination. “I think he bet on something that didn’t quite occur, which is that Wright would subordinate his own feelings to this sort