Throughout his presidential run, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has tried — and, to a large extent, has succeeded — at casting himself as a "post-racial" candidate, one who appeals to broad swaths of the electorate and defies the normal rules of identity politics.
But, over the past week, that effort — and perhaps even Obama's presidential aspirations — have been jeopardized by continued questions about his association with his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. While much of the controversy over Wright has centered on racial remarks, he's also said the United States brought the Sept. 11 attacks and a wave of anti-Americanism upon itself, in part because of its support for Israel.
Speaking to supporters on March 18 at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Obama condemned a series of remarks attributed to Wright, but said he couldn't banish from his life the religious leader who'd officiated at his wedding and baptized his children.
"[Wright's remarks] expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country — a view that sees white racism as endemic," said Obama. "A view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam."
Obama added that, as imperfect as Wright may be, he considers the pastor to be like family. And he attempted to frame Wright and his views within the broader context of the issue of race in America.
"Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely — just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests or rabbis with which you strongly disagree," said Obama, who previously had denied being present in the pews for some of Wright's most incendiary statements.
This latest flare-up occurs after Obama had already seemingly cleared several hurdles regarding Israel and the Jewish community, ranging from a persistent e-mail campaign alleging that Obama is secretly a Muslim to praise that Wright heaped upon Nation of Islam Leader Louis Farrakhan, whose anti-Semitic statements have been well-documented. (Obama denounced Farrakhan.)
But, did his speech — which addressed both black and white attitudes toward the race question — sufficiently answer his critics?
Jay Leberman, head of school at the Perelman Jewish Day School, attended the speech as a Jewish communal leader, but has not endorsed any candidate. He said Obama did a credible job of addressing concerns.
"There are times in Jewish society — he was not wrong — where I have cringed at the community leaders saying things I would never agree with," said Leberman.
Reached by phone, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, noted that by reinforcing America's alliance with Israel and condemning radical Islam, Obama displayed a particular sensitivity to the Jewish community.
Foxman added, however, that while Obama gave an insightful talk on race, he went too far in trying to explain away Wright's views.
"There is no justification. No rationale, no amount of pain justifies bigotry," said Foxman.
Obama also has more prosaic problems to confront: namely, sagging poll numbers. According to a March 18 Quinnipiac University Poll, Clinton leads Obama among likely Pennsylvania primary voters by 53 percent to 41 percent, up from a 49 percent to 43 percent lead on February 14.
On March 12, David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, released a memo that downplayed the importance of Pennsylvania in the nomination fight.
The next day, two high-profile Clinton supporters, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, both blasted the Obama campaign, arguing that the winner of the state's contest deserves to be the nominee.
And, on the same day as Obama's speech, Clinton selected Philadelphia City Hall as the site for a major speech of her own about the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq and her stated goal of bringing troops home.