The Rev. Jeremiah Wright married Barack Obama 15 years ago, and today Obama tried to divorce him. In his strongest remarks to date, Obama said he was outraged and appalled by his former pastor's recent TV tour. "The person that I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago," Obama said. "His comments were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate, and I believe that they do not portray accurately the perspective of the black church."
By putting down his foot, hard, Obama certainly reassured his allies and supporters who hoped he would react to Wright's newest flamboyance with passion rather than the cool jazz aspect that Obama has used for so much else in the campaign. He didn't pound the podium—that would have been out of character. But the denunciation could only have been more thorough if Obama had asked Wright to quit talking by appealing to his sense of Christian charity. Wright's three-day speaking tour has distracted and infuriated the Obama campaign, and the candidate let that show.
It's too early to tell if Obama's remarks will dispel the fallout from his former pastor turned wrecking ball, but they were the right first step. Before Obama can put Wright behind him, he had to put himself back at the center of his own campaign. That's what today was about—taking control of his destiny. And that's how his campaign aides and allies talked about Obama's break with Wright. "This was a human reaction from a man who woke up this morning and saw what Reverend Wright had done was put his personal vanity ahead of changing this country and who thought enough is enough," said one Obama aide.
Since Obama offered his theories on bitter small-town people at a San Francisco fundraiser a few weeks ago, he has at times seemed to be at the mercy of external forces. He is still ahead in the delegate counts that matter but he hasn't seemed like a commanding front-runner. You could sense this in the expression on his face in the cutaway shots during the Philadelphia debate two weeks ago. He looked exhausted and irritated that he was being bled to death by paper cuts, on issues from his lapel pin to Wright to his association with former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers. His performance on the stump was mirroring his performance in his scrimmage today with the Tar Heels—he was struggling to keep pace, and if he did score, it was only when few were watching.
When campaigns get knocked off balance they can overreact. The Obama team did this during the waning days of the Pennsylvania primary by taking on Hillary about her Bosnia exaggerations (after the candidate suggested he wouldn't). Or by trotting out new slogans every week as Hillary Clinton often has. Now Obama is trying to find his way back to his core message of change, which is why he denounced Wright's remarks not only on their own terms but because they were antithetical to his entire worldview. "My reaction has more to do with what I want this campaign to be about," said Obama. "In some ways, what Reverend Wright said yesterday directly contradicts everything that I've done during my life. It contradicts how I was raised and the setting in which I was raised; it contradicts my decision to pursue a career of public service. It contradicts the issues that I've worked on politically."
Perhaps just as important for Obama's attempt to regain control of his campaign was the fight he picked Tuesday with Clinton and John McCain over lifting the gas tax for the summer driving season. The other candidates have backed this crowd pleaser, but Obama labeled it as a phony Washington solution that wouldn't do much to help real people. "This isn't an idea designed to get you through the summer, it's designed to get them through an election," he said at a town hall meeting Tuesday in Winston Salem, N.C.
Substantively, he's got lots of economists and policy experts on his side. By presenting himself as a speaker of hard truth, Obama sought to return to his presentation as the politician who will tell people what they need to hear (that solutions to gas prices are not easy) rather than what they want to hear (that they're getting a big government giveback).
The fight also allows him to tie Clinton to McCain, a useful if small advantage in this endless primary season. A scrape with Hillary over any policy differences is a relief from the swirl of distractions that have been plaguing the Democratic race. Clinton responded Tuesday with a new ad on the gas-tax relief plan, saying it showed that Obama failed to act. Hey, a real issue to mine.
Of course, there are still a number of factors out of Obama's control, including the reaction of voters to Wright, the appetite and attitudes of the press, and the extent to which Clinton allies can keep the story alive. Perhaps the most unpredictable variable is Wright himself, who, as Obama ruefully pointed out, is hardly coordinating with the campaign. Extricating himself from the relationship may be more complicated for Obama than the simple: I want a divorce.