Obama vs. Romney: How to tackle an elephant, or not

Posted by: Diane Brady on March 18, 2008

It’s fascinating to look at Barack Obama’s speech this morning in contrast to the one Mitt Romney gave late last year. Both men were essentially forced to talk about the elephant in their campaigns — the color of Obama’s skin and, in Romney’s case, his Mormonism. And both tried to establish themselves as men who could rise above the confines of race and religion to lead the country.

I think Obama fared better (and, no, I’m not convinced that he’s the best candidate for president). Here’s why he succeeded:

1. He confronted the ‘problem’ head on. In Obama’s case, the problem was his beloved pastor, Jeremiah Wright. The man had said a number of deeply divisive and bitterly unpatriotic comments over the years that were sure to scare off many mainstream voters. Rather than skirt over that fact, Obama mentioned Wright’s name more than a dozen times during his speech. Romney, in contrast, barely mentioned the fact that he was Mormon. The word itself came up once. It was like he was hoping we would forget the fact he was Mormon when it was the reason he was forced into giving such a speech in the first place.

2. Obama condemned the message without killing the messenger. The reality is that Wright has been an important part of Obama’s life for the past two decades. To distance himself from Wright now would seem calculating and insincere, at best. He was smart to condemn the inflammatory comments and then immediately cast it as just part of the picture. As Obama said: “That isn’t all that I know of the man.”

Romney, in his December speech, had a hard time making a similar distinction. On the one hand, he said, “let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions.” Then he went on to talk about being true to the “faith of my fathers” without explaining what that meant. Voters weren’t worried about secret missives from the Mormon’s top brass. They were worried about the tenets of Mormonism itself. Romney failed to address the specifics of that faith that were of concern to some Americans including, incidentally, the history of denying blacks full membership in the church until 1978. Was Romney responsible for that history? No. But he was an adult at the time and could have used this important speech to address the more controversial elements of his faith.

3. Obama played to both sides of the aisle. He talked about the fears of whites, just as he talked about the fears of blacks. He talked about his faith in God. And he did it in a way that, I think, won’t come back to haunt him should he make it to a general election. Romney, perhaps by necessity, was playing primarily to the Christian Right in his speech. Let’s just say he lost me when he said: “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.” Huh? He then went on to argue that “the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning.” A fair point, perhaps, but one that was sure to come up again. In the end, though, he dropped out of the race. And his speech on religion didn’t help.

Reader Comments

Thomas H

March 18, 2008 8:58 PM

Obama's speech was the best speech I have ever heard on the subject of race. Perhaps it's who he is; I can't imagine Hillary Clinton giving that same speech and having the same force. He was candid when he talked about how some whites negatively view affirmative action. He was also candid when he talked about the ongoing problems with segregation in schools that still goes on today. He discussed the prejudices of his black pastor and of his own white grandmother. The genius of the speech was how he came to understand and empathize with BOTH views. All too often we broad brush someone as evil or good without taking into account his or her complexities. And who can do that better than someone like Obama who grew up in a white family, married into a black family, and who seemed to embody the reconciliation that's much needed in America. Thomas H.

Diane

March 18, 2008 9:23 PM

You're right to note that Obama is in a unique position to comment on both the black and the white perspective. I also can't imagine Hillary being forced to give a similar speech to comment on gender, even if some voters have a strong bias there.

Val Edwards

March 19, 2008 4:00 PM

In addition to the helpful links about Mormon beliefs and membership for blacks contained in this post, here is one more official link that may be of interest that discusses the LDS Church and race relations: http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/background-information/race-relations

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