Obama and a test of leadership


With respect to his former pastor, Barack Obama decided yesterday that it was no longer enough to merely reject and denounce. It had become imperative for Obama to nuke and bury.

He had no choice. Jeremiah Wright had turned into a one-man wrecking crew, and it was starting to look like Obama was just a passive bystander, a hapless witness to his own destruction, lacking the requisite guts to take the guy down. Most importantly, that kind of passivity is hardly the kind of character trait that many Americans want to see in a commander-in-chief. A real leader has to show that he can confront and isolate his adversaries. And Wright had indeed become an adversary.

So, referring to Wright's Monday rant on national television, Obama stated yesterday: "When I say I find (his) comments appalling, I mean it. It contradicts everything that I'm about and who I am. And anybody who has worked with me, who knows my life, who has read my books, who has seen what this campaign is about I think will understand that it is completely opposed to what I stand for and where I want to take this country...I have spent my entire adult life trying to bridge the gap between different kinds of people. That's in my DNA, trying to promote mutual understanding. To insist that we all share common hopes and common dreams as Americans and as human beings. That's who I am. That's what I believe. That's what this campaign has been about.

"(Monday), we saw a very different vision of America. I am outraged by the comments that were made and saddened over the spectacle that we saw...There has been great damage (to the Wright-Obama relationship). I do not see the relationship being the same after this."

OK, maybe that wasn't exactly nuke-and-bury, but it was far stronger than anything Obama had previously said. And he had to say it. Polls indicate that Obama has lost ground in both North Carolina and Indiana, both which stage primaries next Tuesday. And while Obama had previously stated that he had not attended church on the Sunday when Wright had blamed America for 9/11, there was no way he could plead obliviousness this time, not with Wright hitting the exact same theme live on CNN.

In recent weeks, most of the commentary (mine included) has focused on whether the Obama-Wright relationship would scare off a lot of white voters. But, based on an encounter I had late yesterday, I now think that, potentially, Obama's problem has much broader resonance.

I'm currently down in southern Mississippi, working on a long-scheduled freelance assignment totally disconnected from politics, but I did run into a Democratic strategist (yes, there are still a few in Mississippi), and naturally the Obama-Wright issue came up in conversation. His concern was Obama, by failing for so long to assail Wright in the strongest possible terms, was starting to look weak.

More specifically, this strategist feared that, in the eyes of swing voters (including the racially enlightened), Obama was starting to look weak; that many voters were perhaps starting to ask themselves whether this new phenom on the political scene was really tough enough to take on the likes of Ahmadinejad when he seemed so reluctant to handle Wright with the ruthlessness that is sometimes required of a chief executive.

So the question now is whether, for many voters, Obama's remarks yesterday come too late...and whether his severing of the relationship appears less principled than poll-driven.

By the way, my road work in Mississippi may well mess with my blogging rhythm for the rest of this week. If new posts show up at odd times, or not at all, you'll know why.