Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama gave one speech in Philadelphia this week, but he made two different presentations.
The first was an apology and attempted explanation for his 20-year relationship with a preacher, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who is viciously anti-American, racist and anti-Semitic and for his membership in a church which had honored Louis Farrakhan.
The second presentation was an eloquent but fundamentally inadequate speech about racism and poverty in America. It was an invitation to a national dialogue that conservatives and all Americans should accept.
A Failure of Judgment? Or a Failure of Honesty and Courage?
Sen. Obama’s first presentation was very troubling. It offers two possibilities for judging his character, both of which are unsettling.
The first possibility is that Sen. Obama did not notice the racism, anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism coming from the pulpit in 20 years of attending Pastor Wright’s sermons. He failed to register as troubling Pastor Wright’s trip to Libya with Louis Farrakhan to see Muammar Qaddafi or the church’s giving Farrakhan a lifetime achievement award.
But if this is true, it is a devastating insight into any possibility that Sen. Obama is ready to be President. How could we expect him to act with judgment and responsibility in Iran and Iraq, to pick a Supreme Court Justice or to undertake any other complex act under the pressing reality of being president when he could not notice reality in 20 years at his church.
On the other hand, if he noticed the goings on in his church but failed to act on them, what does that tell us about his honesty and his courage?
Pastor Wright Falls Short of Obama’s ‘Don Imus’ Standard
After all, it was Sen. Obama himself who set the standard. As Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby noted, "When Don Imus uttered his infamous slur on the radio last year, Obama cut him no slack. Imus should be fired, he said. ‘There’s nobody on my staff who would still be working for me if they made a comment like that about anybody of any ethnic group.’"
I understand this standard. When I first became speaker of the House, we hired a House historian who turned out to have written very controversial things. We asked for her resignation within 24 hours of learning what she had done.
Clearly, when it comes to Pastor Wright, Sen. Obama has fallen short of his own standard by about 20 years.
Still, the fascinating opportunity Sen. Obama offers is to begin a genuine dialogue on race and poverty in America.
The Opportunity of Our Lifetime to Engage With the Left in How to Help Every American Pursue Happiness
The sections of his speech on race and poverty were eloquent — but they were fundamentally inaccurate and inadequate.
As such, they create a real opportunity to engage Sen. Obama in a national dialogue about why poverty exists on the Southside of Chicago, why Detroit has been a disaster and why there is so much crime in Philadelphia.
This is the best opportunity conservatives have had in our lifetime to engage a serious politician of the left on a national dialogue about how to help every American pursue happiness.
Sen. Obama’s analysis in his Philadelphia speech was so filled with inaccuracies and was so inadequate in its proposed remedies that it must be responded to. However, the event could be the beginning of a major national effort to discuss how we can help poor people, poor neighborhoods and impoverished Americans.
What Would Sen. Obama Do About the Tragedy of Detroit?
In Real Change (which with your help has now entered its ninth week on the New York Times bestsellers list), I outline the disaster of Detroit, which has dropped from 1,800,000 people in 1950 to fewer than 900,000 today (the first American city to drop below one million in our history). Detroit had the highest median income of all major cities in America in 1950. Today it ranks at No. 66 out of 68 major cities in media household income.
The tragedy of Detroit can’t be blamed on the decline of the auto industry alone. Grand Rapids — another Michigan city dependent on the auto industry but one with good government — is prospering.
African-Americans in particular have been impoverished by the bad government policies of Detroit. What would Sen. Obama do to reform the bad city government, failed public safety policies and terrible school system?
The Challenges of Racism and Poverty Won’t Be Solved With the Attitudes and Policies of the Left
As speaker, I helped pass the welfare reform bill. On the 10th anniversary of the passage of welfare reform, Christine Kim and Robert Rector highlighted some of its achievements:
- During the late 1990s, employment of never-married mothers increased by nearly 50%, of single mothers who are high school dropouts by 66% and of young single mothers (ages 18 to 24) by nearly 100%;
- The child poverty rate fell, from 20.8% in 1995 to 17.8% in 2004, lifting 1.6 million children out of poverty;
- The poverty rate among black children fell from 41.5% in 1995 to 32.9% in 2004 (a stark contrast from the period 1971 to 1995 when this poverty level had not changed much);
- The poverty rate also fell from 53.1% to 39.8% for children from single-mother families;
- The once explosive growth of unwed childbearing has ended. The unwed birthrate was 7.7% in 1965 and increased about one percentage point per year for the next thirty years. Had this rate of increase been sustained, the unwed childbearing rate would have hit 41.6% by 2003, but welfare reform interrupted this process. Between 1995 and 2003, overall unwed childbearing inched upward by only 2.4 percentage points, a fourth of the pre-reform rate of increase. The black unwed childbearing rate actually fell from 69.9% in 1995 to 68.2% in 2003; and
- Welfare caseloads began to decline in earnest after 1996 and have fallen by 56% since then.
Let’s Have an Honest National Dialogue About What Works and What Fails in Helping People
Today at American Solutions, we are using the Platform of the American People to help develop a series of fundamental changes designed to help poor Americans pursue happiness and achieve prosperity. We can meet the challenge of racism and poverty in America but we cannot do so with the attitudes, the policies and the institutions of the left.
My message today to all conservatives is this: We should accept Sen. Obama’s invitation.
Let us have an honest national dialogue about what works and what fails in helping people.
Let us visit the sites of institutions that are failing and the sites of places where people are doing the right things and having a positive result.
Let us have the courage to challenge conservative ideas and institutions but let us also have the courage to challenge left-wing ideas and institutions.
Stay Tuned for More Analysis of Obama’s Speech Next Week in a Speech at the American Enterprise Institute
Sen. Obama has opened a discussion that could be very good for America. It may turn out to be a discussion that forces him to confront the degree to which today’s problems are the problems of bad government, bad regulations, bad tax policy, bad litigation policy and bad attitudes.
American playwright David Mamet has just written a remarkable essay titled "David Mamet: Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal,’" in which he explains his own confrontation with his changing views on the role of government and what works in society. Mamet writes: "What about the role of government? Well, in the abstract, coming from my time and background, I thought it was a rather good thing, but tallying up the ledger in those things which affect me and in those things I observe, I am hard-pressed to see an instance where the intervention of the government led to much beyond sorrow."
This is such a complex and important area, and Sen. Obama’s speech had so many inaccuracies and false assumptions about poverty in America that I will give a speech next Thursday at the American Enterprise Institute with a more detailed analysis of these sections from Obama’s speech.
In the meantime, everyone should eagerly respond to the invitation to have an honest dialogue about how to help all Americans achieve their Creator-endowed rights.