A new, tougher Obama?

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So, he has a killer instinct after all--or at least some limit to his forbearance. Obama's response yesterday to Jeremiah Wright's flurry of appearances, and especially to the pastor's speech at the National Press Club on Monday, was pretty steely. He called what Wright had to say "a bunch of rants". He said he was disgusted, and looked it. In contrast to his earlier and widely noted speech on race, in which he said he could never repudiate Wright the man, this time he just went ahead and did so.

We shall see whether this works. Wright isn't going away. His NPC appearance showed that he is a narcissist as well as a racist demagogue, so there will be more. (So much, by the way, for taking his sermon snippets out of context. Wright has embarrassed not just Obama but also many moderate sympathisers who felt the reverend should be cut some slack. When asked about the government conspiracy to spread AIDS among the black population, he did not apologize for getting carried away; he affirmed that this was his view, saying that the government was capable of anything.) Perhaps Obama has now separated himself, but perhaps not.

It is worth noting that Wright did not say anything new on Monday; he did not say anything that Obama had not already heard. Plainly, Obama was angry not about what Wright said, but about the fact that he has chosen to keep on saying it--to the obvious detriment of Obama's faltering campaign. Who wouldn't be angry under those circumstances? But it is too late for Obama to say that the man's views are so offensive in themselves that they put him outside the realm of decency. If that is true now, as Obama seemed to be saying yesterday, it was true weeks ago.

This is an inconsistency in Obama's evolving position on Wright, though it might not matter. If the good pastor continues to ventilate, many people will continue to ask whether Obama was right ever to have given him the benefit of the doubt--and this is a fair question. On the other hand, giving an old friend the benefit of the doubt is an admirable and understandable trait, especially if you do not do it without limit and remain capable of seeing the error of your ways. As I say, we shall see.

Meanwhile, the gas-tax holiday. Was this a good issue for Obama to pick a fight on? I doubt it. With Clinton and McCain both agreeing on this admittedly stupid, pointless gimmick, Obama has set himself the task of explaining why a few months of slightly cheaper gas (let's say, 9 cents a gallon cheaper--assuming that the incidence of the 18 cent tax is split 50-50 between producers and consumers) is such a bad thing. He is right on the substance: it solves nothing. But the problem is that his own larger ideas on the issue are no better.

The political punch in the way Clinton is spinning this proposal is that it demonizes the oil companies, second only in popularity in this country to demonizing the health insurers. It has to be a winner. And how can Obama object? He defers to no-one in his willingness, this present case excepted, to demonize both. His argument that the McCain/Clinton gas-tax idea is the usual Washington nonsense is true, but hard to square with his own litany on excess profits, wicked corporate interests, the gouging of consumers and the rest.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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