Jeremiah Wright, Obama's Former Pastor, Will Not Be An Issue This Campaign, Experts Say


WASHINGTON -- Jeremiah Wright, the controversial pastor who haunted President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, gave Republicans new comments to work with on Sunday, but experts say it's unlikely Wright will become the lightning rod he was for the president in 2008.

The right-leaning Daily Caller reported Monday that Wright appeared to slight Obama in a sermon at a Washington, D.C. church.

Children "who only know Oprah and Obama" need to learn about "the foundation" who preceded them, Wright said. He name-dropped several prominent civil rights figures about whom he said young people should know, including Emmett Till and Rosa Parks.

Wright went on to accuse America's elite universities, including Obama's alma mater, Harvard University, of inculcating African-American students with "white racist DNA." Those words soon lit up the conservative blogosphere, and Fox News reported, "Rev. Wright Goes on Racial Tirade."

But the sermon at the Florida Avenue Baptist Church, a few miles from the White House, may not reverberate as far as Wright's words did during Obama's first presidential campaign, experts told The Huffington Post.

"The fact that Wright is attacking Obama today gives further credence to the idea that Obama has successfully distanced himself from Wright at this point," Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political scientist who studies the post-civil rights generation of black politicians, wrote in an email.

"My gut is it is not worth the time" to revive Wright as a campaign issue, Republican pollster Ed Goeas said in an email to HuffPost. "All the economic stuff is such a target-rich environment, no need to go there and give [Democrats] something to try and get us off message."

The GOP recently made clear that the economy is its main talking point, when word leaked out of a super PAC plan commissioned by Joe Ricketts to link Obama and his former pastor, and the proposal was quickly rejected publicly by Mitt Romney. "I repudiate that effort," Romney said of the plan.

Smearing Obama with Wright's controversial rhetoric "had traction four years ago because Obama was still a relatively unknown political figure," Gillespie said in an email. "Today, while there are people who still charge him with opaqueness, voters have a lot of information with which to judge Obama."

Leonard Steinhorn, a communications professor from American University and co-author of "By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race," said he agrees that much has changed.

"The American people have had four years observing Barack Obama under the media microscope, and they see no connection between him and the rantings of Rev. Wright," he said, noting the rapid rejection of Ricketts' proposed ad campaign. But he cited another reason Wright is unlikely to become a campaign issue.

"It might encourage media hound dogs to snoop more into Gov. Romney's religious practices as a way to balance out the reporting," Steinhorn said in reference to the presumptive GOP presidential candidate's Mormonism. "No one wins when a candidate's faith becomes the issue."

David Maraniss wrote in his recently published biography, "Barack Obama: The Story," that the future president was "an inveterate doubter" who joined Wright's Trinity United Church of Christ as a way to connect with Chicago's African-American community during his time as a neighborhood organizer. Obama eventually grew closer to Wright, who officiated at his wedding and baptized his two daughters.

All of that changed during the 2008 campaign when Wright became a political liability for the Illinois senator, who hoped to become the first African-American president.

Wright's inflammatory rhetoric -- such as saying that blacks should not sing "God Bless America" but "God damn America," along with an incendiary appearance at the National Press Club -- caused endless headaches for the Obama campaign. The candidate found himself forced to give a major speech on race to defuse the issue and later resigned from Wright's church.

Still, when Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker recently went off-message and compared attacks on Romney's former company, Bain Capital, to conservative efforts to smear Obama by linking him to Wright, it was a reminder that race remains salient in the minds of some voters.

"I doubt the Romney camp will officially touch the Rev. Wright issue with a 10-foot pole, but the fact that this is still coming up in our public discourse suggests that there are those who seek to delegitimize President Obama by suggesting that he is an extremist," said Gillespie, the Emory professor.

Joshua Behr, a political scientist who specializes in minority politics at Old Dominion University in Virginia, said in an email that for conservatives, "[i]t has become increasingly difficult to make the Wright connection stick." He predicted that Wright's Sunday sermon will be "either a non-issue or will be a single-day flash-pan issue to be knocked about by the political pundits to create controversy where there really is none."

Harping on Wright has little upside for Republicans hoping to make Obama a one-term president, Behr said.

"I do see among conservatives at the state organizing level a sense that the rank-and-file campaign workers ought to stay on the messaging task around the economy -- Obama's management of the budget, future tax increases -- and not get side-tracked by race-based politics," Behr said. "Essentially, the belief being that the Wright issue will detract from the focus on Obama's management of the economy."

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