Footage in mouth

On October 2nd, the conservative website, The Daily Caller, released a video that it hoped would pose the same endemic threat to Barack Obama’s campaign that the now-infamous 47% footage poses to Mitt Romney’s. The video is a recording of a 2007 speech that Obama delivered on the campaign trail in New Orleans, on the subject of Katrina relief and racism in America. Like Mitt Romney’s remarks to a cosseted group of wealthy donors, the speech is rhetoric presented with a niche message and a niche audience in mind. But is this video the political equivalent of Romney’s behind-closed-doors leak? Is Obama’s “us-versus-them” mentality any different from Romney’s?

With the “resurfacing” of the video (despite claims that the speech was covered up by mainstream media at the time, this is not true), Fox News, Drudge Report, and other right-wing news outlets rushed to publicize the then-candidate’s “racially charged” language, labeling it Obama’s “other race speech”—the hidden and more inflammatory companion to the President’s 2008 Philadelphia address on the subject.

Molding your message to your audience is the bread-and-butter of persuasive politics and especially of campaigning. Yes, politicians have stump speeches, but even those are tailored to fit the needs and beliefs of whoever’s in the crowd. But there are important distinctions between Obama’s words in New Orleans and Romney’s in Boca Raton. And there’s a reason that The Daily Caller’s efforts to seize the news cycle only succeeded until the first presidential debate began, while Romney’s scandal raged unabated for days.

Obama knew he was being recorded. There’s none of the duplicitous sting that accompanies the implication that Mitt Romney never wanted the public to hear him. There are clear contrasts to be drawn in terms of content, too. Romney’s comments tar almost half of the electorate with a broad brush, relying on a series of sweeping and jumbled generalizations to imply that Democrats and Obama’s allies are not “responsible” for their own lives, that they are “victims.”

Obama does seek to curry favor with his listeners—he mentions his pastor Jeremiah Wright and refers to “our neighborhoods.” There might be a grain of some deeper antagonistic truth in that, but the idea that Obama is being divisive by describing America as “a racist, zero-sum society” is harder to swallow. The legacy of racism’s long and tragic history in this country persists, and not only in isolated pockets, either. Republican bloggers like John Hawkins traded in the ridiculous when they pointed to the speech as evidence of Obama’s racism against whites. It’s an accusation that’s only possible to make if you overlook one crucial piece of information: the existence of Obama’s white mother and grandparents. The fact that these pundits are so determined to prove Obama’s prejudice against them is perhaps the best proof for their own unjust prejudice against him.

So will The Daily Caller’s “breaking news” win Romney any support? That’s doubtful—most voters who find it offensive probably already lean right. More likely the resurrected speech and the attention it garnered will fade to a footnote, just a blip in the larger story of the election. Mitt Romney should be so lucky.

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