Barack Obama had never run a competitive campaign in his life before 2008, certainly not on the scale of a presidential run. For the last few months, he seemed to have an almost unnatural ability at it.
In the last 72 hours, the Obama campaign has begun to implode, and at the worst possible time. It may not be enough to sink him, but it’s becoming an increasingly large possibility.
The way in which the Wright scandal is being mishandled is not helping Obama. Here’s what he said just a few weeks ago:
And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.
I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.
I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.
Today, it’s a different story. It looks like Sen. Obama really can disown Rev. Wright. Not only that, it certainly seems like he did disown Rev. Wright.
Obama has a huge credibility problem right now. Rev. Wright was his pastor for 20 years. Rev. Wright officiated his marriage and baptized his children. And just now he finds out that Rev. Wright is a race-baiter? That all of a sudden Rev. Wright went from perfectly reasonable to abjectly bugnuts just as Obama was running for President. As Jim Geraghty puts it: you buy that? That kind of argument isn’t going to play with the American people, who have the common sense to spot when someone’s being a patent phony from a mile away.
Obama himself has said that Rev. Wright issue is a legitimate political issue. Obama himself has said that he could no more disown Wright than he could disown the entire black community. Obama himself said that he had no idea that Rev. Wright was this crazy, even though he attended his church for 20 years.
That kind of thing is what can kill a campaign. You can’t keep changing the story, and you can’t expect the American people to believe you when your explanations are so patently unrealistic. Obama has run a well-oiled campaign, but the fact that he’s a political neophyte is starting to show at the worst time for him.
It’s doubtful that Obama really didn’t know who Rev. Jeremiah Wright really was for 20 years. It would be hard not to notice such things. Obama barely dodged the Wright issue the first time, and now his self-inflicted wounds are even worse.
This won’t necessarily kill him in the primary, but it will in the general election. For all Sen. Obama’s great political talent, a presidential election is not the time to start learning the ropes. A defter hand at campaigning would not have made these basic mistakes, but Obama’s inexperience is showing. Either he was willing to ignore Wright’s racism or he’s an incredibly poor judge of character. Regardless of which is the truth, it reflects poorly on him, and since he admits it’s a legitimate issue for discussion, he has to live with the consequences.
UPDATE: The New York Times has a transcript of Obama’s remarks. I didn’t see the press conference live, but from the end it reads like Obama was getting snippy with the reporters. We’ve seen that before from Obama, and in a crisis the last thing that you want to do is alienate the press.