Back home after a 10-day trip that took him halfway around the world, Barack Obama told a convention of minority journalists Sunday that his presidential campaign will focus on the economy "for the duration," but the presumptive Democrat nominee issued a spirited defense of his travels.
Obama said he was "puzzled" by suggestions that his trip through European and Middle Eastern capitals was presumptuous. "I basically met with the same folks John McCain met with after he won the nomination and nobody said that was audacious," Obama said. McCain traveled to Europe and the Middle East in March.
"Now I admit, we did it really well," grinned Obama, who won a near-endorsement from French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris and drew an audience of 200,000 in Berlin. "But that shouldn't be held against me. If I was bumbling and fumbling through this thing, I would have been criticized for that too."
Obama said he felt the trip was worthwhile to broaden his understanding of the international scene and build relationships with foreign leaders, though he acknowledged it might cost him temporarily in the polls at a time when voters are focused on domestic pocketbook issues such as the rising price of gasoline.
Those issues will be center stage Monday afternoon in Washington, when Obama emcees a panel of economic experts to discuss short-term and long-term solutions to the nation's economic problems. Panelists will include former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and billionaire investor Warren Buffett, Obama said.
In a Q-&-A with members of Unity, a convention for African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic and Native American journalists, Obama criticized his Republican opponent, John McCain, for announcing Sunday he'd back a ballot initiative in his home state to ban affirmative action after earlier opposing such an effort as divisive.
While Obama said programs designed to give a boost to minorities cannot be long-term solutions to racial discrimination, he expressed dismay at McCain's apparent change of heard. "I am disappointed that John McCain flipped," said Obama.
The Illinois senator said he could support affirmative action programs "depending on how they are structured" but told his audience of minority journalism professionals that it wouldn't be fair if they benefit "some of our kids who are advantaged" over "more favor-able treatment than a poor white kid who's struggled more."
"What I'm interested in is programs that take a wide range of issues into account," Obama added. "I think a college should be able to take into account race, but in addition should also be able to take into class and hardship and difficulty."
In response to questions from the minority journalists, Obama argued that he's not compounding prejudice against Muslims in American when his campaign works to counter false reports that he is Muslim. "I think my credentials on supporting Muslim Americans are very strong," said Obama, noting that he spoke about discrimination against Arab Americans in a 2004 speech to the Democratic convention.
"I just don't like the idea of somebody falsely identifying my religion," said Obama.
He said he's in a "no-win" situation on the issue of race. When Suzanne Malveaux, a CNN reporter who moderated the discussion with Obama, noted that the biracial candidate a year ago was subject to criticism that he "wasn't black enough," Obama interjected: "Now I'm too black."