POLITICS
07/09/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Not Every Moderate Move By Obama Is A "Sista Souljah" Moment

The "Sista Souljah Moment" has become a cliché without peer in contemporary politics. And like any phrase that is so often used, its value is necessarily diminished over time.

When Barack Obama delivered his Philadelphia speech on race, making his first full-frontal effort to solve the problem of Jeremiah Wright, it was widely hailed as his "Souljah moment." Then, when he later fully severed ties with Wright, Obama was said to have performed the "full Souljah." McCain has also engineered several such "moments" while trying to secure his maverick persona -- so many that writers for both the New York Times and the conservative National Review have called his entire political career one big, long Sista Souljah moment.

Now, as Barack Obama's recent raft of moderate moments (on FISA, Wes Clark, and the "threadbare" arguments of MoveOn.org) seems poised to prompt further exclamations of Souljah-ing, it's worth re-examining what the original moment entailed -- and what it did not. Because while Obama certainly seems to have absorbed some of the lessons Bill Clinton taught Democrats in 1992, Souljah-ing hardly accounts for all of his centrist political instincts.

But history first.

In 1992, then Gov. Bill Clinton strode to the podium at a gathering of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition with the knowledge that he was about to serve a political ace.

One day before Clinton spoke, the longtime civil rights leader's group had invited controversy by giving a platform to Sista Souljah -- an unremarkable rapper whose name would otherwise have been lost to history -- and who had previously suggested in a Washington Post interview that, as something of a break from the daily cycle of lamentable black-on-black violence after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, "why not have a week and kill white people?"

While other Democrats of the era might have panicked and canceled any invitations to follow Souljah's act at the Rainbow Coalition, Clinton recognized an opportunity. The Southern governor could not only "do the right thing" from a moral perspective and point out the proper goal of eliminating violence altogether (instead of simply race-shifting the impact), but he could also stand up to Jackson's stewardship of African-American activism that many independent -- and, yes, largely white -- voters believed had the Democratic Party cowed.

When Clinton spoke to the group and compared Souljah's tasteless broadside to comments by white supremacist David Duke, he may have stung Jackson, who felt betrayed, though he also assured his electoral viability in PC-averse southern states. (African-Americans were hardly united in support for Souljah's comments, either.) Thus the political cliché was born: the "Sista Souljah Moment." In retrospect, it was a freebie pivot. Unlike other triangulations, one could hold onto previously-held principles while taking advantage of the issue du jour in order to score political points.

So what does that incident tell us about the politics of the moment? Not as much as some commentators would have you think.

Reacting to Obama's Tuesday remarks about the role of faith in public life, the Bush administration's former point man on faith-based initiatives told the AP that the speech had the potential to become "a major Sista Souljah moment." The only problem with such analysis is that Obama has long talked about the role that faith-based institutions should play in the public sphere, even writing about it in "The Audacity of Hope." And as a community organizer, much of Obama's work centered around working with church groups on Chicago's south side.

So despite their centrist spirit, Obama's remarks today do not represent a sudden shift, nor do they seize on any particular au courant controversy as did Clinton's unwelcome surprise in front of Jackson's group. Nor is Obama's position a "move to the center" so much as it is a recapitulation of a moderate-style position Obama appears to have always held. (As Andrew Sullivan noted, "you could see this coming a while back.")

Speaking on background, a source in the Obama campaign admitted to a certain frustration with the current narrative of their candidate "moving to the center" on issues where the Illinois Democrat has always staked out moderate ground. When talking about a gradual pullout from Iraq during the primary season, for example, Obama took some abuse from the "immediate withdrawal" crowd for his repeated mantra that "we should be just as careful getting out" of Iraq as we were "careless getting in." (And indeed, as represented by the "Responsible Plan" website, that kind of talk is firmly in the mainstream of activist anti-Iraq war sentiment anyway.) In the aftermath of Obama's FISA repositioning, the Obama campaign's fear, however, is that every subsequent moderate noise will be interpreted as a cynical centrist tack.

As for their distancing from Gen. Wesley Clark's criticism of John McCain's national security experience this week -- seen by some liberals as a Souljah-style betrayal --- the Obama camp notes that their candidate always has always gone out of his way to honor the Arizona Republican's military service, and discouraged attempts to do otherwise. And when it comes to yet another potential Souljah-moment -- Obama's implicit criticism on Monday of MoveOn.org's infamous "General Betray-us" ad -- his campaign notes that he objected to the ad at the time of its publication as well. (Well, sort of. After at first refusing to take an explicit position, Obama did eventually vote in favor of a Democratic-authored Senate resolution that sprung up in the wake of that controversy.)

Still, Obama's Monday pounce against MoveOn -- in which he described their tactics as "threadbare" during a speech on patriotism -- seems to fit the Souljah mold most clearly, at least out of the ranks of the many purported Souljah-moments of late in the campaign. Just as the original Souljah moment was a critique that many African-Americans could get behind, there's precious little liberal love for MoveOn's "Betray-us" ad.

"I would guess that if you polled the members of MoveOn, a majority of them would also reject the language of the headline of that ad," progressive writer Todd Gitlin told the Huffington Post. "I would, and I was a contributor. I supported the concept of the ad, and gave money for it, but didn't give money for that [betray-us] text. ... I thought it was stupid. So, I mean this is a freebie."

Just like the original Souljah moment.