Commentary Magazine


Obama Backers Must Embrace Race Issue

The almost hysterical reaction in the mainstream press to the revelation that one super PAC was planning to run ads about President Obama’s former pastor, the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was highly instructive. For two days, liberal newspapers like the New York Times and much of the rest of the chattering classes have been hyperventilating about something that not only had no connection to the campaign of Mitt Romney but which was specifically condemned by the candidate. And yet somehow we are told that this non-event changed the political narrative of the week and distracted Americans from thinking about the failing economy that is causing the president’s poll numbers to head south.

The alacrity with which the Obama campaign and their liberal cheerleaders seized on the Wright issue spoke volumes about the Democrats’ current weakness. The president’s chief problems revolve around the fact that the economy is so poor and his signature legislative accomplishment — ObamaCare — is deeply unpopular. Because he cannot run on his record, his path to victory in November must therefore involve a careful combination of calumnies against his opponent and attempts to change the subject from the nation’s fiscal health to the one that helped elect him in 2008: race. That is the only way to explain his campaign’s desperate attempt to leverage a marginal story into a major campaign issue.

As we wrote yesterday, the argument that any mention of Wright is a sign of racism is absurd. Four years after his election, any time spent discussing the influences on Obama’s character is pointless. But because Wright is a part of his biography that can not be denied, reminding the public of his longstanding ties to a scoundrel is neither a sign of extremism nor racism. Any candidate who spent that much time in the church of such a person — be they black or white — would have much to explain.

The main point to take away from this story isn’t about whether the GOP is right to talk about Wright. Rather, it is the way it has illustrated that the main, if not the sole justification for the president’s re-election is still the issue of race. Four years ago, the president was careful to distance himself from Wright and successfully persuaded the media that this issue was not worth pursuing. But in a stroke of irony, today his campaign embraces the Wright issue — though not the man himself — because they think it is an effective way to remind voters of the historic nature of the Obama presidency.

The fulminations about the supposed ugliness of any mention of Wright in the campaign demonstrate that without race the Obama re-election effort has no convincing rationale other than the tired themes about the perfidy of the Bush administration and class warfare demagoguery that is more intended for the Democratic base than independent or swing voters.

Americans felt good about electing the first African-American to the presidency in 2008, but a big part of that was the notion that Barack Obama was not only a post-partisan politician but also a post-racial figure. The events of the last three and a half years have given the lie to Obama’s pose about partisanship. The Wright kerfuffle illustrates that he needs again to rely upon the sympathy of those who wish to right historic wrongs in order to win in November. But that is a political card that is much harder to play twice. As much as a focus on race is a powerful fact that works to his advantage, the lack of a more positive underlying principle could be fatal to his hopes. Though we should expect the liberal media to hold on to the race theme for all it is worth in the next few months, this is a dubious strategy that will be difficult to sustain in the absence of a genuine economic recovery.

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