About that Obama/Farrakhan Photo...
They say a picture is worth a 1,000 words. Well, this might take me closer to 1,200! When Barack Obama sought the presidency in 2008, opponents fostered a narrative that could have easily sunk his campaign. The story was that Obama was the unknown, the socialist…the left-wing radical.
To be sure, he had associated with some of the latter. During the campaign, it came to light that in 1995, Obama attended a dinner hosted by Bill Ayers, a co-founder of The Weather Underground, a revolutionary group founded in 1969 that bombed numerous public buildings. That the two served together on the board of Woods Fund of Chicago for three years became a point of constant conversation on the campaign trail. In fact, in a Democratic primary debate in April 2008, George Stephanopolous asked Senator Obama, “Can you explain that relationship [with Bill Ayers] for the voters, and explain to Democrats why it won’t be a problem?”
Obama said that Ayers was just a guy in his neighborhood, not someone “he exchanged ideas with regularly.” This rebuttal didn’t stop his Republican foes from jumping on his supposed radicalism during the general election. The Republican Party created barackbook.com (a spoof of the early Facebook) and listed Ayers as one of Obama’s friends. Three months before election day, Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin went so far as to say that “Obama was palling around with terrorists.” That label stuck.
Of course, Ayers wasn’t the only controversial figure linked to the Obama campaign. Obama’s own reverend was on the record saying some rather anti-American things. Obama had known Reverend Jeremiah Wright since the 1980s, when the future president was community organizing in Chicago. The two became close enough that Wright ended up officiated the Obamas’ wedding, and the reverend inspired Obama so much that The Audacity of Hope was based on one of Wright’s sermons.
In the wake of September 11th attacks, though, Reverend Wright wasn’t so inspiring. He said, "We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back into our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost."
Wright’s inflammatory comments caught up with Obama in March 2008. ABC ran an article detailing all of Wright’s controversial sermons. In response, Obama gave perhaps his most famous speech of the campaign at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. I was there, and I distinctly remember an air of uncertainty—as in, maybe he won’t get past this controversy. There, he began by invoking the preamble to the U.S. Constitution to explain the historical tension between freedom and equality in the United States. He then went on to explain that Wright’s statements were fundamentally un-American: “[Reverend Wright’s words] weren't simply a religious leader's effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country—a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America...”
Unfortunately for candidate Obama, Wright’s radicalism wasn’t just a thing of the past. In April of 2008, Wright announced to the NAACP in Detroit, "Africans have a different meter, and Africans have a different tonality. Europeans have seven tones, Africans have five. White people clap differently than black people. Africans and African-Americans are right-brained, subject-oriented in their learning style. They have a different way of learning."
Footage of Wright became a nightly feature on Fox News and dogged the Obama campaign. On April 29th, 2008, Obama finally declared, “Wright’s comments were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate, and I believe that they do not portray accurately the perspective of the black church.”
In that same speech, Obama mentioned another controversial figure, saying that when “Wright suggests that Minister [Louis] Farrakhan [the leader of the Nation of Islam] somehow represents one of the greatest voices of the 20th and 21st century… then there are no excuses” for Reverend Wright’s words.
Now, just imagine if a photo of Obama with Farrakhan appeared soon after that quote? Farrakhan is toxic to a large swatch of America due to his anti-Semitism and black separatism. He’s a man with a history of controversial statements. Maybe his most cringe-worthy, though, was about Jewish people in 1985 at Madison Square Garden, where he said: 'You cannot say 'Never again' to God because when he puts you in the oven, never again don't mean a damn thing.''
In combination with a photo with Farrakhan, Senator Obama’s relationship with Ayers and Rev. Wright would have looked all the more dubious. Likewise, his dismissal of Wright would have appeared disingenuous and engineered. Obama would have been a radical, not just in right-wing media, but on the left, too. The label, especially as the first African-American, major party candidate, would have been impossible for him to escape. We likely wouldn’t have had a President Obama. Instead, we might’ve seen another landslide, as Barack Obama joined the likes of Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, and George McGovern as Democrats who couldn’t hold their weight in the general election.
I raise this hypothetical now because last week, a photo of a young Senator Obama and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan surfaced. Taken in 2005 at a Congressional Black Caucus meeting by photojournalist Askia Muhammed, the image shows Obama smiling with Farrakhan. If this photo had been public in 2005, I’m convinced it would have sunk his candidacy. The handwringing about Obama’s radical roots would have begun immediately and would likely have prevented him from being a candidate with a national appeal. And if the photo did not surface until 2008, it would likewise have become “the” narrative of the election. Consider that last week, on The Tucker Carlson show, Muhammed said that the Black Congressional Caucus made him not share the photo publicly, a sign that they realized the bad optics of the photo. The photojournalist also claimed—without proof—that members of the Nation of Islam worked on Senator Obama’s staff. Conservative media has latched on the narrative that this was a “cover up” and definitive proof that Obama truly was a radical.
But here’s the kicker: Obama was no radical president. If anything, he was a left-of-center moderate.
Domestically, Obama was a mixed-bag. His trademark legislation—the ACA—was a policy idea created by the very conservative Heritage Foundation and first implemented by the Republican governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney. For those who thought Obama might be a closet socialist, he surely disappointed when he followed through on George W. Bush's bailout of Wall Street and also refused to prosecute any of the major figures in the 2008 financial crash. He also stacked his deficit commission with fiscal conservatives. Meanwhile, President Obama was the biggest proponent to date of free market thinking in education, using his Department of Education to encourage and fund charters across the country. And while Obama might want to be remembered as an environmental champion, he ordered increased offshore drilling (until the BP oil spill).
Although he tried to stay out of the Syrian conflict, President Obama’s foreign policy record suggests some serious neo-conservative habits. He went so far as to violate Pakistan’s sovereignty in order to kill Osama Bin Laden, a prospect for which he was ridiculed during the 2008 campaign by Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and John McCain. President Obama may not have favored the words “radical Islam,” but he significantly increased President George W. Bush’s drone strikes in the war against terror, and he never did close the Guantanamo detention center.
The list could go on—Obama didn’t violate gun rights the way conservatives feared, and he was the deportation president. By Nate Silver’s measure, this political record made him a completely middle-of-the-road Democrat. DW-Nominate’s went one step further: the group estimated Obama was actually the least liberal Democratic president since 1945.
Obama’s record inspired progressive thinker Ezra Klein to say in 2011, “If you put aside the emergency measures required by the financial crisis, three major policy ideas have dominated American politics in recent years: a plan that uses an individual mandate and tax subsidies to achieve near-universal health care; a cap-and-trade plan that attempts to raise the prices of environmental pollutants to better account for their costs; and bringing tax rates up from their Bush-era lows as part of a bid to reduce the deficit. In each case, the position that Obama and the Democrats have staked out is the very position that moderate Republicans have staked out before.”
One can debate whether Obama was a true centrist, or whether he was a standard, left-of-center Democrat. But as Bill Ayers said in an op-ed in 2013, “President Obama was no radical.”
Thankfully, the Farrakhan photo didn’t surface eight years ago. If it had, we would’ve missed out on a middle-of-the-road president due to some misplaced, media-driven hysteria. The next time some seemingly incriminating evidence surfaces, let’s remember this bit of history.