Many conservatives are boiling mad about the emergence of a videotape of a 2007 speech given by President Obama at Hampton University. In it, the president — then just a senator from Illinois running for the White House — engages in some disgraceful racial incitement. He claimed the Bush administration deliberately shortchanged Hurricane Katrina victims because of racism. He also lavishly praised Rev. Jeremiah Wright and said he was a mentor. For many Obama critics, this is one more smoking gun proving the president is every bit the radical who is comfortable lying about race and extolling those, like Wright, who hate America and promote conspiracy theories. Tucker Carlson, whose Daily Caller broke the story of the tape, is right to term Obama a shameless demagogue for having the gall to say that Republicans didn’t care as much about poor black hurricane survivors as they did about the families of the 9/11 victims.
But as bad as it is, anyone who thinks the tape will change any votes next month is dreaming. Candidates for president may be judged on their backgrounds but sitting presidents are judged on their records. Nor can we entirely blame the fact that this story got buried by the press. It is true, as Politico notes in a feature about the video, that the liberal mainstream media did not make a big deal about the remarks when they were reported early in 2008 much as they failed to hold Obama accountable for another statement made that year in which he derided Americans for “clinging to guns and religion.” But let’s also understand that the problem goes deeper than just the press.
In 2008, Americans eager to believe in a post-racial, post-partisan African-American candidate for president filtered out any evidence that contradicted their desire for “hope and change.” In 2012, many appear ready to do the same thing when it comes to ignoring the reality of the president’s failed record on the economy and foreign policy. Much of the press may be in the tank for Obama, but the half of the electorate that may vote for him join them there. It’s time to face up to the fact that Obama, not Ronald Reagan, is the real Teflon president.
What conservatives have always failed to understand about Obama is that the rules that constrain other politicians do not apply to him. This speech should have been damning evidence of Obama being more fit to serve as Al Sharpton’s sidekick than the presidency. But though the mainstream media reported the story, other than conservatives who were already against him few cared about it because it contradicted their desire to view the future president as someone who was above such behavior.
The Obama they wanted to believe in was the man who made a speech in Philadelphia in the spring of 2008 that was treated as the best speech given in Pennsylvania since Abraham Lincoln began an address with the words, “Four score and seven years ago.” In that one, Obama carefully distanced himself from the same man that he embraced as a hero only a few months before because he had become a liability. In that speech to a racially mixed audience at the Constitution Center, Obama not only eschewed the “black dialect” he affected at Hampton (and which Joe Biden would use four years later when he told another black audience in Virginia that Mitt Romney would “put y’all back in chains”) but put forward an argument asking us all to rise above racial divisions. It was a clever piece of rhetorical ju-jitsu and worked like a charm, even if it was patently insincere.
The point here is that none of this was a secret when Obama gave his Philadelphia speech. Those who wanted to know about his radical connections and to draw the dots between Wright and people like former terrorist Bill Ayers and Obama’s future policies had the evidence to do so. The problem is liberals and many independents wanted so badly to believe in him that they simply ignored anything that didn’t fit the story they wanted to hear or exposed his hypocrisy.
It’s not only too late now for this video to change the country’s opinion of a man for whom they’ve been playing “Hail to the Chief” for the last four years. It was probably too late even in the spring and summer of 2008 to convince those who were already beguiled by the notion of Obama’s messianic appeal.
Republicans are befuddled by a president who leads in the polls despite giving himself an “incomplete” on a failed economy. But Obama is impervious to the truth about his past racial incitement for the same reason a majority may not wish to hold him accountable for his mismanagement of the economy. Those who will ignore both do so not just because they still blame President Bush for the economy but because they think the first African American president deserves re-election no matter what he has done in office.
That leaves Mitt Romney with a still viable but extremely narrow path to the presidency. This is yet another reminder that Republicans need to forget about old tapes that won’t influence the small group of undecided voters and concentrate on economic arguments that can flip them back to the GOP.