Foreign Policy Debate

10.02.12

Conservative Outlets Push Old Video of Barack Obama Talking About the Poor

The 5-year-old tape shows him talking about New Orleans, bias and urban despair. Howard Kurtz on how Fox, Drudge and the Daily Caller are casting it as a racial controversy.

Conservative media outlets trumpeted a five-year-old video of Barack Obama on Tuesday night in which he talked about urban despair, the Los Angeles riots and Hurricane Katrina but made only glancing references to race.

Despite claims that the tape was a racially charged “bombshell,” it shows Obama as a presidential candidate speaking at Virginia’s historically black Hampton University in June 2007—and, according to BuzzFeed, at least part of it has existed online since then.

What “steams me up,” Obama said, was that the Bush administration had waived a law after Hurricane Andrew in Florida and the Sept. 11 attacks that required local authorities to match federal aid—but did not do so after Katrina. “Somehow the people down in New Orleans, they don’t care about as much,” Obama said. While the Illinois senator didn’t mention race, New Orleans is a majority-black city whose poorest wards were hardest hit by the hurricane. A number of politicians and commentators have accused the administration of lacking urgency in aiding that city.

In a move apparently timed to influence Obama’s first debate with Mitt Romney on Wednesday, the posting of the 40-minute video appeared to be an attempt to shift the campaign focus to racial matters, a subject the Republican nominee has not broached.

Video screenshot

President Obama's 2007 Hampton University speech.

The video was obtained by the Daily Caller, a conservative website edited by Fox commentator Tucker Carlson and financed in part by Foster Freiss, a financier who is helping bankroll one of the pro-Romney Super PACs. It was touted by right-leaning Internet gossip Matt Drudge and played on the air by Sean Hannity, the most reliably Republican voice on Fox News Channel. Hannity accused the “left-wing press” of “hiding” the speech.

Carlson, on Hannity’s show, accused Obama of using a “phony” accent. That seems off base; while Obama dropped some g’s and spoke as if delivering a church sermon, the cadence is recognizably his. On a subsequent panel, Fox analyst Juan Williams, who is African-American, told Hannity that “you guys are playing the race card.” Hannity accused him of “protecting” the president.

In the section of the speech on the L.A. riots and Katrina, Obama did attempt to explain—and perhaps justify—anger in the black community: “People in Washington, they wake up, they’re surprised: ‘There’s poverty in our midst! Folks are frustrated! Black people angry!’ Then there’s gonna be some panels, and hearings, and there are commissions and there are reports, and then there’s some aid money, although we don’t always know where it’s going—it can’t seem to get to the people who need it—and nothin’ really changes, except the news coverage quiets down and Anderson Cooper is on to something else.”

An analysis of why some blacks are angry and frustrated is not the same as racial rabble-rousing, which explains why the speech drew little coverage at the time, when Obama had been a presidential candidate for nearly six months.

The other comment in which Obama directly refers to race is this: “We don’t need to build more highways out in the suburbs. We should be investing in minority-owned businesses, in our neighborhoods.” But that is hardly an inflammatory position for a big-city Democrat, and did not cause a ripple at the time. Obama went on to say that the highways were not needed because people were ready to take jobs in the city.

Under a banner headline, Drudge said that “Obama describes a racist, zero-sum society.” But nothing on the tape supports that.

The posting of the 40-minute video appeared to be an attempt to shift the campaign focus to racial matters, a subject that Romney has not broached.

In the video, the Illinois senator says that when people are homeless, Iraq veterans are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder or children grow up in foster homes, “we can’t expect them to have all the skills they need for work. They may need help with basic skills—how to show up for work on time, wear the right clothes and act appropriately in an office.” None of that seems particularly scandalous.   

Obama also praised his pastor at the time, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who was in the Hampton audience, as a friend and leader.

There is a faction in the conservative movement that has long argued that Obama got off easy in 2008 over Wright’s racially charged rhetoric, and that the onetime community organizer harbors questionable views on race. The most extreme elements believe he is a secret Muslim and was born in Kenya, despite documented evidence that he is a Christian and his birthplace was Hawaii.

The Caller’s publicizing of the video could be viewed as a counterattack to the liberal magazine Mother Jones obtaining the secretly recorded fundraising video last May in which Romney dismissed 47 percent of voters as freeloaders addicted to government benefits. A key difference is that Obama delivered his address in public, in front of reporters and television cameras.

The New York Times did not cover the speech in a news story. The Washington Post gave it two paragraphs in a roundup column, saying: “Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said in a speech yesterday that ‘quiet riots that take place every day’ in impoverished communities around the country create conditions that lead to violence such as the 1992 Los Angeles riots.”

Carlson has criticized the Hampton speech before. In a 2007 clip posted by BuzzFeed, Carlson, then hosting a show on MSNBC, said Obama “waded into the controversial waters of race” and aired this excerpt:

“These quiet riots that take place every day are born from the same place as the fires and destruction and the police decked out in riot gear … They happen when a sense of disconnect settles in and hope dissipates. Despair takes hold in young people all across the country look at the way the world is and believe that things are never gonna get better.” There was no reference to race in those words, although Obama was clearly talking about poor, urban communities where many minorities live.