Here is a radical notion: this is exactly what Barack Obama needed. Clearly, he needed to stiff-arm Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but more than that he needed to show some outrage and maybe even a little bit of rage. He needed to show that he is capable of action when action is what is called for.
When he tossed Wright out the penthouse window Tuesday, he seemed more in charge than he has in weeks.
Obama said of Wright's appearance at the National Press Club: "Yesterday I think he caricatured himself… That made me angry, but also made me sad."
And in his peculiarly measured style he added: "There wasn't anything constructive about yesterday. All it was is a bunch of rants that aren't grounded in truth." The fact that he was willing to take it so personally, made Obama seem a little more human to all those people, African Americans in particular, who see Wright as a wrecking ball to this campaign that they care so much about, and want to see him repelled. "That's a show of disrespect to me," Obama said. "It's also an insult to what we've been trying to do in this campaign."
Finally, a little fight!
The embattled, beleaguered Democratic hopeful has spent the last few days looking like a wounded deer in the headlights after getting his clock cleaned in Pennsylvania and then having his old pastor resurface to deliver a publicity body blow when he could least afford it.
While there is little to support the notion that Wright is doing damage to Obama where it matters most – at the polls – there is no question that Wright has presented Obama with a series of management issues. How he handles the Wright controversy may be more important than anything Wright had to say. The concerns that Wright is hurting Obama with white working-class voters is in many ways a political fiction that fits into a somewhat convenient narrative. The fact is that Wright was hurting Barack Obama with Hillary Clinton's voters. They voted for her before Wright burst onto the scene, and they voted for her after. There is no question that Obama has work to do with them. The Ohio and Pennsylvania results prove that.
They are Democrats, however, and how they vote in November is not at all foretold by the way they vote in a primary between Clinton and Obama. Obama's weakness with these voters is obvious, but they are overstated. Remember that Hillary Clinton's campaign is carrying some historic freight, too: The first woman president would be a big deal, and women feel that deeply. The Pennsylvania results prove that too.
So it may be that white working-class women, who make up a majority of the of the white working-class vote, are voting for Hillary Clinton out of the same sense of pride and history that many African Americans are voting for Barack Obama. Does that make them McCain voters in November if Obama is the nominee? I daresay not.
The immediate problem for Obama is that he seemed trapped by the Wright controversy; unable or unwilling to get enough distance from Wright and the chaos he has injected into the campaign. With his performance on Monday, Wright released Obama from any obligation to be either delicate or deliberate in dealing with him. It is suddenly each man for himself.
For interested parties, there were enough sound bites in Wright's speech to make whatever case one was inclined to make: He helped Obama, he hurt Obama; he defended himself, the black church, "his mama" and the African-American tradition of "playing the dozens." One could even make the case that outside the context of this political campaign, what Wright had to say was hardly controversial at all.
But, of course, there is no context outside this political campaign, and it was clear that the Good Reverend Wright was determined to defend himself and indulge his resentments at Obama's expense. When he says it was not an attack on Jeremiah Wright, he meant that it was an attack on Jeremiah Wright. And nothing could have been more dismissive of Obama's chances of winning than Wright's contention that regardless of the election results, he would still be a pastor "on Nov. 5th and on January 21st."
Wright was not intending to do Obama any favors. In fact, it was not hard to read the bristling hostility in his words and body language. But by so clearly dissing and distancing himself from Obama, and by being so openly willing to sabotage the campaign, Wright has set Obama free, at last.
"I do not see this relationship being the same after this," Obama said, and that may be exactly what he needed.
Now could we talk about that $4-a-gallon gas?
Terence Samuel is deputy editor of The Root.