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Obama Seeks to Put Wright Behind Him

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Today, Barack Obama worked to get back on message. For nearly a week, he's been dealing with controversy after his former pastor broke his silence. Yesterday, Obama denounced Reverend Jeremiah Wright. He called his most recent comments divisive and destructive. Today in Indiana, he tried to put the focus on working families.

NPR's Don Gonyea is traveling with the Obama campaign. He joins from the campaign bus outside Indianapolis.

And Don, how successful was Barack Obama today in trying to change the subject?

DON GONYEA: Ah, well, he held an event at an outdoor park here just outside Indianapolis. It was a small group, about 40 people. And I'll tell you, it was a little over an hour, the whole event. It took about 19 minutes before the subject of Reverend Wright came up, and it was raised by one of those working families that he was talking to about economic issues. And, Melissa, the questioner seemed sympathetic. He asked Obama what it was like to be forced to turn his back on someone who's been good to him. Senator Obama said again that Reverend Wright's comments were outrageous, that they were unacceptable. He then went on to say this.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): I've made a statement yesterday that was hard to make, but it was what I believe. And you know, what we want to do now, though, is to make sure that this doesn't continue to be a perpetual distraction.

BLOCK: Now, Don, Barack Obama's wife, Michelle, was also campaigning with her husband today, and Reverend Wright is, after all, the man who married the couple. This is very personal for both of them. What did she have to say about all this?

GONYEA: Well, it's funny. She was seated next to her husband; they were on a picnic table near the gazebo. He asked if she wanted to weigh in on that question after he made his comments. She declined. She kind of laughed. But then, the very next questioner brought up the issue of children, and Michelle Obama did take that question. And in a response to that question, she didn't specifically mention the Wright controversy, but it was clear what she was talking about - give a listen.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA (Senator Barack Obama's Wife): I just tell people don't judge Barack by anything other than what he does and says. Just measure it by the choices he's made in his life and the values that he holds dear. Because if anybody looks over the course of this year, you won't have a question about who Barack is.

BLOCK: Now, Don, I understand there are other ways that Barack Obama is on the defensive here, beyond the Jeremiah Wright issue.

GONYEA: That's right. How about gasoline taxes? He's being attacked over that issue. Hillary Clinton and John McCain both want to suspend the 18.4 percent federal tax on gasoline for the summer driving period. I'm sorry 18, 18 cents, 18 cents.

BLOCK: Yes.

GONYEA: She has an ad to that end. And she says, if - it's help that the American people need and that Senator Obama says no. He addressed it today at length. He said it's a gimmick. He said it would save the average person just a few dollars a week at best. That it would mean less money for highway upkeep and maintenance, and that could cost highway construction jobs. And he said there's no guarantee that - because of supply and demand, or whatever - that the oil prices wouldn't just raise the price up anyway, kind of eating up whatever savings would be proposed.

It's a complicated argument that he makes because he's a, you know, against the tax cut, but he's making it.

BLOCK: We mentioned at the beginning, Don, that Barack Obama is trying to speak to working families in Indiana. Besides the gas tax, what else was he talking about today?

GONYEA: He is talking about jobs. He is talking about finding tax relief for working class families and rolling back some of the Bush tax cuts on wealthier Americans. He is making a bet that that is the kind of thing that voters here in Indiana want to talk about. He knows that these attacks - the Wright controversy, the other things - these issues aren't helping him.

But you can also see him trying to highlight those attacks as exactly the kind of thing that is wrong with politics in America today. And that notion has been a major theme of his campaign right from the beginning. So he's trying to turn these controversies into a kind of a tried and true campaign theme of his that has worked earlier in the campaign.

BLOCK: Okay, Don, thanks so much.

GONYEA: My pleasure.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Don Gonyea in Indiana with the Obama campaign. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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