Obama Defends Wright's Reputation, Not Words

Candidate Talks About Race, Economy and Democratic Nomination Battle


March 27, 2008 —

Sen. Barack Obama believes the Democratic race is about more than race.

But it's that subject that has been driving the recent political conversation surrounding one of the mostly hotly contested nomination fights in many years.

"If all I saw of Rev. Wright … were the 30-second or one-minute clips that have been looped over the last two weeks again and again as opposed to the body of work for 30 years that he engaged in in building a church that is a pillar of the community on the South Side [of Chicago]," Obama told ABC News anchor Charlie Gibson, referring to the controversy that erupted over incendiary remarks by his pastor of 20 years.

"It's as if we took the five dumbest things that I ever said or you ever said … in our lives and compressed them, and put them out there, you know, I think that people's reaction would be understandably upset."

Watch Charlie Gibson's interview with Sen. Barack Obama on World News at 6:30 p.m. ET

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the retired pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, has a long history of what even Obama's campaign aides concede is "inflammatory rhetoric," including the assertion that the United States brought on the 9/11 attacks with its own "terrorism."

An ABC News review of dozens of Wright's sermons, offered for sale by the church, found repeated denunciations of the United States based on what he described as his reading of the Gospels and the treatment of black Americans.

"The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people," he said in a 2003 sermon. "God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."

In addition to damning America, Wright told his congregation on the Sunday after Sept. 11, 2001, that the United States had brought on al Qaeda's attacks because of its own terrorism.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has distanced himself from the reverend's words but not from the pastor, a position the candidate continued in his interview with ABC News Thursday.

Asked to elaborate on a part of his speech in which Obama admitted he had heard Wright make controversial statements in the church, Obama said he wasn't thinking of any particular statement.

"There have been times in his sermons where his indictment of racism or institutional barriers to African-American freedom in this country struck me as stuck in the '60s; not having acknowledged, you know, that today's America is very different from the America that he grew up in," Obama said.

"This is somebody who I knew for 20 years. He was my pastor," Obama said. "He wasn't my political adviser. He wasn't somebody who was, you know, shaping my thoughts about most issues."

The Politics of Race

The Democratic candidate, who last week challenged the country to have a national conversation about race, reflected on the impact the issue of race has had on his campaign.

"I suspected that this issue would come up in some fashion," Obama said. "As somebody who had a white mother and a black father growing up in this country, it's something that I have had to navigate over many years."

"What I tried to do in that speech was to give an, an honest accounting of both sides. A sense that, you know, both sides have angers and resentments. But ultimately, we have so much more in common than divides us," he said.

Obama said he has friends on the right side of the political spectrum who "say things that I find pretty crazy as well."

"My goal is to, is to try to get my arms around this country as a whole and, and to see if, if we can get people to talk and recognize each other, even if they disagree," he said.

Obama said he hopes to get back to talking about other substantive issues the country faces.

"I am not interested in having, in wallowing in a lengthy conversation about race," he said. "What I was trying to do in the speech was point out that we often use racial divisions -- or politicians often use racial divisions as a way of ignoring the common problems, like terrorism, or the foreclosure crisis."

Obama said the Wright story dominated the news at a time when the country marked the 4,000th U.S. military death in Iraq.

"My argument is not that we should focus obsessively on race. My argument is, we should acknowledge the dangers of racial division, precisely in order to focus on those problems that we all have as common as Americans," he said.

Bitter Democratic Battle Continues

The junior senator from Illinois knows he's in the hottest horse race of his political life -- ahead in the pledged delegate count, popular vote, and states won.

"It's tough," Obama said. "We have been campaigning now for a long time. We have got very ardent supporters on both sides. And you know, the media these days enjoys a good horse race, and this is about as good of a horse race as you could get."

But Obama dismissed the argument that there will be long-term damage to the party.

"I don't think we are hurt, long-term. I think short term, there is gonna be work to do for the nominee to bring the, the party back together again. People feel pretty passionate about their respective candidates. I appreciate that, and I understand it," Obama said.

But Obama noted the ongoing Democratic battle has allowed Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the presumptive Republican nominee, to go relatively unchallenged.

"Sen. Clinton and I are in an active contest right now, and John McCain is traveling around the world and, you know, making speeches without really being the target of any significant debate or attack," the Illinois senator said.

"And so I, I think what's gonna happen is that there are gonna be some bruised feelings, whoever the nominee is. We are gonna have to come together and remind ourselves that there is a heckuva lot bigger difference between either Sen. Clinton or myself, and John McCain," Obama said.

Obama, who often describes his Democratic opponent as "tenacious" said today, "Sen. Clinton has run a very tough, hard-fought campaign."

Taking on McCain

Despite intense interest in the Democratic race, Obama insists voters want to focus on the issues.

"They want to talk to me about the potential for $4 a gallon gas. They want to talk to me about their mother who is about to lose their home to foreclosure. They want to talk to me about how to save for their own retirement and send their kids to college at the same time," Obama said.

A recent Gallup poll indicates that 28 percent of Clinton supporters say they would vote for McCain over Obama should she win the nomination. But 19 percent of Obama supporters say they would go for McCain over Clinton.

And though he has yet to win the Democratic nomination, Obama isn't wasting any time in starting a potential race against McCain.

"When it comes to our plans for withdrawing troops from Iraq, when it comes to dealing with the economic crisis that's affecting so many families out here … the Democrats are gonna have to unify in order to win in November," Obama said.

It's the Economy, Again

In his speech at Cooper Union Thursday, Obama called for immediate relief for homeowners hit by the housing crisis, modernization of the regulatory framework and an additional $30 billion stimulus package.

"We both think that if, that we need to have some government action to stabilize that market," Obama told ABC News, when detailing the difference between him and Clinton on their economic plans. "Not, to bail out people who took excessive risks but to make sure that you don't have a spillover that affects the entire economy for a very long time."

While Obama has proposed a $10 billion fund to help lenders rework existing subprime loans into 30-year, fixed loans and to crack down on mortgage fraud and predatory lenders, Clinton has proposed a $30 billion emergency fund to help states combat home foreclosures as they see fit. She has called for a 90-day moratorium on subprime foreclosures and a five-year freeze on subprime interest rates.

Obama argued that Clinton's proposal to freeze subprime interest rates goes too far.

"I think that's a bad idea, because what the mortgage market will do is make it much tougher for you to get a mortgage in the first place or refinance a mortgage. It may help those who get their mortgage frozen, but it's not gonna help the market as a whole, and a lot of hardworking people who are trying to get a home or hang on to their home," Obama said.