What Could Obama Have Been Thinking?

Washington Matters

What Could Obama Have Been Thinking?

Barack Obama is no longer gently treating the Rev. Jeremiah Wright like the mildly crazy uncle who blurts out unbelievable things now and then. He slammed Wright hard today, saying his former pastor's recent comments give "comfort to those who prey on hate."

But if he has hopes of undoing some of the damage Wright and some of Obama's own missteps have caused, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination has to look more like a sure-footed leader and less like a mere bystander at his own campaign. 

Obama could have responded forcefully much earlier. He held a press conference late Monday and rebuked Wright far more mildly. Why not let the hammer down the first time? Obama says he had not seen all the comments when he called reporters together.

In an era where instantaneous communications and rapid response -- press releases taking issue with this or that are often issued just minutes after an opponent speaks -- that simply strains credulity. Wright's press club appearance had been heavily promoted and even more highly anticipated; by one count there were 30 TV cameras there. And the best-financed, best staffed campaign of the three candidates couldn't go over a transcript and figure out just how troubling and offensive they might have been?

The delay gives the appearance of Obama underestimating the impact of Wright's appearance or of simply waiting to issue a stronger condemnation until the reviews were in -- until columnists, bloggers and others had pointed out how distressing and potentially damaging the remarks were. And if that's not the case, the fact that he was so slow in responding is perhaps even more troubling: Obama was ill prepared to respond to an event that was as predictable as high tide.

Even a mediocre, inexperienced campaign with scant resources knows that if you don't respond relatively quickly to an important morning event or development, whatever happened or transpired then will dominate the news. You lose the opportunity to have your response lead and become the main news itself. Further, by waiting to respond forcefully, the campaign gave the Wright story powerful legs for at least another day. Obama made himself look like a rookie -- in a campaign where experience and toughness are near the top of Democratic voters' minds.