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National Public Radio "Morning Edition: Interview with Senator Barack Obama (D-IL)


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SEN. OBAMA: You know, it's something that I had always wanted to do. And John Lewis is a dear friend and a hero of mine. He had been asking me repeatedly. This year he wanted me -- and he also wanted me to speak at the event. And so I told my staff, let's really try to make it work this year.

MR. INSKEEP: When you talk about speeches, do you try to talk in the same way to a black audience as a white audience?

SEN. OBAMA: Yeah, I think that the themes are consistent. I think there is a certain black idiom that it's hard not to slip into when you're talking to a black audience because of the audience response. It's the classic call-in response. You know, anybody who has spent time in the black church knows what I mean. And so, you know, you get a looser. It becomes more -- a little more like jazz and a little less like a set score.

MR. INSKEEP: What about in questions of substance or what you emphasize?

SEN. OBAMA: Typically, that doesn't change. Whatever the audience, I'm typically talking about America's capacity to transform itself, our ability to change and make this a more just and equal nation despite what look like daunting odds.

MR. INSKEEP: Given that you're running in democratic primaries where the black vote is so important but other slices of the vote are very important too, do you feel that you have to prove yourself to black leaders or to civil rights leaders?

SEN. OBAMA: You know, I really don't, you know, and I think it's instructive to look at how I ran my U.S. Senate campaign. When I first started that race, I was not only registering poorly in the polls -- because nobody knew who I was -- but it was really not that much different in the African-American community. And in the end, I ended up getting 80 or 90 percent of the African-American vote, but I also won the white vote. So I think that the African-American community is more sophisticated than I think the pundits sometimes give them credit for. The notion that right now I'm not dominating the black vote in the polls makes perfect sense because I've only been on the national scene for a certain number of years and people don't yet know what my track record is. And so --

MR. INSKEEP: Will you need to dominate that vote in order to win?

SEN. OBAMA: I will be speaking to themes that are important to that community. But I don't expect to get monolithic African-American vote because I think that we have some strong candidates in the field, and it would be presumptuous with me to assume that people would vote for me simply because of my race.

MR. INSKEEP: Hillary Clinton, who has also decided to speak in Selma this weekend, has a lot of black leadership support. Our correspondent Juan Williams recently interviewed a number of black leaders about you. One of them was Bobby Rush, the congressman who defeated you one time.

SEN. OBAMA: He did more than just defeat me; he spanked me.

MR. INSKEEP: (Laughs.)

SEN. OBAMA: (Laughs.)

MR. INSKEEP: Well, he may -- this may count as another spanking, I don't know, but I'll just read you this quote. He said, referring to you, "I'm a race politician and he is not. I don't compromise. I don't step back. I don't try to deny I'm proud to be an African American." What does that make you think of when you hear a quote like that?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, it's always hard for me to know the context of these quotes. I mean, Bobby has endorsed my race and encouraged me to get in. There is no doubt that in the history of African-American politics in this country, there has always been some tension between speaking in universal terms and speaking in very race- specific terms about the plight of the African-American community. By virtue of my background, you know, I am more likely to speak in universal terms.

MR. INSKEEP: May I read you another quote?

SEN. OBAMA: Please.

MR. INSKEEP: This is from Peggy Noonan, the Republican speechwriter, talking about another path-breaking politician, John F. Kennedy. She said of Kennedy, when he became president, "The good news was that the Irish Catholics had arrived. The bad news was that he was a Protestant from Harvard."

SEN. OBAMA: (Laughs.)

MR. INSKEEP: You're from Harvard. (Laughs.)

SEN. OBAMA: Yeah. The -- well, you know, look, you know, identity politics in this country are always going to be complicated, and African-American politics in particular is weighted with extraordinary history, often painful and tragic history. And so I think my candidacy for the -- for the presidency is going to bring to the surface a whole bunch of stuff. A lot of it won't necessarily have to do with me, but will have to do with the country being in a dialogue about where we are now, how far we've come, and how far we have to go.

MR. INSKEEP: Do you think that your life or your experience as an African-American would cause you, as president, to pursue any particular policy differently than if you'd been white?

SEN. OBAMA: As president or in my -- in the past?

MR. INSKEEP: As president. As president. Would you be a different president in some way, or whether there is something that you know that a white president would not know.

SEN. OBAMA: Well, I guess what I would say would be that there are certain instincts that I have that may be stronger because of my experience as an African-American. I don't think they're exclusive to African-Americans, but I think I maybe feel them more acutely.

I think I would be very interested in having a Civil Rights Division that is serious about enforcing civil rights laws. I think that when it comes to an issue on education, for example, I feel great pain knowing that there are children in a lot of schools in America who are not getting anything close to the kind of education that will allow them to compete. And I think a lot of candidates -- Republican and Democrat -- feel concern about that. But when I know that a lot of those kids look just like my daughters, maybe it's harder for me to separate myself from their reality. Every time I see those kids, they feel like a part of me.

MR. INSKEEP: Well, Senator, thanks very much for your time.

SEN. OBAMA: I had a great time. Thank you.


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