April 29, 2008 -- Over the past few days, the controversy surrounding the Rev. Jeremiah Wright has all but drowned out Sen. Barack Obama's message, upstaging the candidate at a time when he has been struggling to win over white, working class voters.
The fallout has also threatened Obama's electability in the eyes of many superdelegates.
On Monday, Wright defiantly defended his controversial remarks in a speech at the National Press Club. Today, just a week before the Indiana and North Carolina primaries, Obama denounced Wright in his strongest terms yet, calling his behavior "outrageous" and a "spectacle."
Obama Denounces Wright
"The person I saw yesterday was not the person I met 20 years ago," the Illinois senator said at a press conference in Winston-Salem, N.C. "His comments were not only divisive and destructive, but they end up giving comfort to those that prey on hate."
Clips of the pastor's controversial sermons have become a constant loop on television and the Internet, providing fodder for Obama's political opponents.
Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington on Monday, Wright called the recent criticism surrounding his sermons "an attack on the black church."
"This is not about Obama, McCain, Hillary, Bill or Chelsea, this is about the black church," Wright said, speaking before an enthusiastic audience of black church leaders at the start of a two-day symposium.
Throughout his speech and a subsequent question-and-answer session, Wright defiantly argued that many of his critics had not heard his whole sermons and that the media had twisted his words.
Wright vigorously defended himself against accusations he is unpatriotic, but in Washington he went on to compare U.S. troops to the Roman legions that killed Christ, to praise Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and to suggest that the AIDS epidemic was a racist plot.
Obama rejected those comments outright on Tuesday.
"When he states and then amplifies such ridiculous propositions, such as the U.S. government somehow being involved in AIDS; when he suggests that Minister Farrakahn somehow represents one of the greatest voices of the 20th and 21st century; when he equates the U.S. wartime efforts with terrorism, then there are no excuses. They offend me, they rightly offend all Americans and they should be denounced," Obama said.
Politician vs. Pastor
Obama's public denouncement of the retired pastor stands in stark contrast to a speech on race the candidate delivered just last month.
"What Reverend Wright said (on Monday) directly contradicts everything I have ever done during my life," Obama said.
In his widely lauded speech on race before the Pennsylvania primary, Obama took an entirely different tone, making clear that while he disagreed with some of the sentiments Wright espoused in sermons, he would not "disown" a man he considered to be "like family to me."
"He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding and baptized my children," Obama said in that speech. "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."
But Wright criticized Obama on Monday, saying, "I do what pastors do. He does what politicians do. I am not running for office," suggesting Obama's previous criticisms of Wright's sermons — including that speech on race relations in Philadelphia — were insincere.
"If the Rev. Wright thinks that's just political posturing, as he put it, then he doesn't know me very well, and based on his remarks (on Monday), well, I may not know him as well as I thought either," Obama said.
Obama did not say if he would stop attending Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago. A new pastor, the Rev. Otis Moss, recently took over for Wright, after Wright's retirement from the pulpit.
Backlash for Obama?
Obama's strong words are a high stakes gamble by his campaign to control a spreading political firestorm.
"He threw him under the bus. But, you know, if you watched him as he spoke, there didn't seem to be any pleasure in him doing this. And there was a sadness about it ... even if it helps him with voters, it had a tragic quality to it," said Lynette Clemetson, managing editor of TheRoot.com.
Many party insiders say Wright gave Obama no choice and that his decision to distance himself from Wright today showed courage.
"I thought it took a lot of courage for a man to have to say some unequivocal statements against someone that has been dear to him, his pastor," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who sought the Democratic Party's nomination in 2004.
"And to say it, knowing that he's going to take a lot of flak from certain elements and certain portions of his base political constituency," Sharpton said. "But I think whether one agrees with him or not, he spoke his conscience."
"I didn't vet my pastor before I decided to run for the presidency," Obama said.
Nevertheless, the political damage may be done. In some ways, Obama's break with Wright is what — in politics — they now call a "Sister Souljah moment" — referring to Bill Clinton's denunciation of a rap singer in 1992, breaking with the base to appeal to centrist voters.
But Obama's connection to Wright runs much deeper than Clinton's to Sister Souljah. This was, after all, the pastor who officated at his wedding and baptized his daughters.