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Obama, Wright and the Agency Problem

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As Barack Obama tries to heal this country's racial wounds, Jeremiah Wright seems intent to pick off the scab.

This would not be so harmful to Obama if he didn't also have what lawyers like to call an "agency" problem. That's the upshot of Obama's decision to disassociate himself from certain of Reverend Wright's words, but not the man himself.

Obama and his campaign are trying mightily to make it clear that Wright doesn't speak for Obama, but the facts remain stubborn. Obama credits Wright as the man who brought him to Jesus. Wright married Obama and baptized his children. He served for more than a decade as Obama's preacher and until recently as a part of a campaign advisory team. Even in disassociating himself with Wright's remarks, Obama explained that he couldn't disown Wright because he is like a family member. It is clear that Wright is an important person in Obama's life, which makes questions about Wright fair game.

Each time Wright speaks, it leaves Obama open to the question: you've disassociated yourself with some words, what about these words? And, as we all know, Wright has been speaking quite a bit lately. One can agree with Reverend Wright about many things, sympathize with him about others, and still recognize that his message about racial differences and division is deeply discordant with Obama's commitment to encouraging hope and bringing America together.

It seemed for a couple of weeks like Obama had successfully put the worst of the Reverend Wright controversy behind him in his majestic speech on race in Philadelphia. At the time, Obama's refusal to disown Wright seemed like a deeply loyal and gracious act. Now, in the face of aggressive disloyalty by Reverend Wright, Obama's graciousness seems foolish.

In fact, Wright, more than anyone else this campaign season, has called into question the premise of Obama's candidacy. In describing Obama's statements disassociating himself with the worst of Wright's remarks as those of "politician" who was doing "what politicians do," Wright has raised fundamental questions about what Barack Obama believes and what he values. Wright appears to think Obama agrees with him about everything, but can't admit it because he is running for office.

That's not an impression Barack Obama can afford let linger if he wants to be President. He needs to make clear, now, that the desire for change, unity, and reconciliation that has propelled his candidacy to this point is far more important to him than his personal relationship with Reverend Wright.