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Posted by on Oct 27, 2008 in At TMV | 27 comments

Obama’s “Redistribution of Wealth” Quote In Context

John McCain is apparently set on continuing his current socialism-themed attack on Obama based on “newly-discovered” comments Obama made in 2001 while discussing the civil rights movement on NPR. The line of attack can basically be summed up with the headline Drudge is running right now: “2001 Obama: Tragedy That ‘Redistribution of Wealth’ Not Pursued By Supreme Court.”

Now, there’s taking quotes out of context, and there’s just making stuff up, and this one falls into the latter category. Read the full quote and listen to the audio below (do your best to ignore the dramatic commentary in the YouTube video). If you can get outraged at that, you probably weren’t voting for Obama anyway.

“If you look at the victories and failures of the civil rights movement, and its litigation strategy in the court, I think where it succeeded was to vest formal rights in previously dispossessed peoples, so that I would now have the right to vote, I would now be able to sit at a lunch counter and order and as long as I could pay for it I’d be okay.”

“But,” Obama said, “The Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society. And to that extent as radical as I think people tried to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn’t that radical. It didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution, as least as it’s been interpreted, and Warren Court interpreted in the same way that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties, says what the states can’t do to you, says what the federal government can’t do to you, but it doesn’t say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf. And that hasn’t shifted.”

Obama said “one of the, I think, the tragedies of the civil rights movement, was because the civil rights movement became so court focused, I think that there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change, and in some ways we still suffer from that.”

H/T to Andrew Sullivan

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  • Guest

    Obama’s argument actually strikes me as conservative — i.e., by focusing too much on change through the court, those advocating change lost sight of the most enduring way to affect change — via the grassroots. This is also consistent with his current mantra. Change doesn’t come from Washington, it comes to Washington, from the people.

  • AustinRoth

    “It didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution, as least as it’s been interpreted, and Warren Court interpreted in the same way that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties, says what the states can’t do to you, says what the federal government can’t do to you, but it doesn’t say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf. And that hasn’t shifted.”

    It is hard to see how this can be characterized as ‘out of context’. He calls out the Supreme Court for not re-writing the Constitution!

    • Elyas

      AustinRoth, do you at least see the irony of saying “it is hard to see how this can be characterized as out of context” immediately after you take a quote out of context? The snippet you offered was immediately preceded by, “And to that extent as radical as I think people tried to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn’t that radical.” He was describing the actions of the Warren Court and how they were perceived, not his own interpretation of what the Supreme Court should do.

  • jdave


    I see where he said that SCotUS did not, as you say, “rewrite the constitution,” but I do not see where Obama calls them out for not doing so. Where in that quote is Obama doing more than describe, where does he go farther, to criticize?

    It says “They didn’t do it.” It does not say “They didn’t do it and should have done it.”

    Now, I do wonder what Obama meant by “one of the tragedies was that the civil rights movement lost track of activities on the ground through which you can bring about redistributive change.” (my honest effort at an accurate paraphrase) If by “activities on the ground” and by “redistributive” he meant, “let’s teach the poor how to work hard and be responsible so that they can get out there and compete with Joe the plumber,” then what conservative could complain about that? Redistributive is scary of course, but I cannot see how “activities on th ground” could mean “get the government to redistribute the wealth.”

  • AustinRoth

    Sorry elyas and jdave, I think you are being overly generous in trying to fit his words into your view of him. Taken as a whole (not out of context), to walk away believing that he neither believed that the Supreme Court should have gone further, nor called for government redistribution, is a stretch and giving him a massive benefit of the doubt, to say the least.

    To jdave in particular, “put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change” sure doesn’t have the feel of a call for “teach(ing) the poor how to work hard and be responsible so that they can get out there and compete with Joe the plumber”. Quite the opposite, in fact. There is nothing about the phrase “coalitions of power” that can easily be read as “teach responsibility”

  • Wait a minute, how is that support of redistribution of wealth? The reference of “tragedy” is not associated at all with “redistribution of wealth.” You have to be a world-class contortionist to get those to relate to each other. This is what the Righties are getting exercised over?

  • DLS

    Actually, Obama does somewhat of a passable job of redeeming or rescuing himself in his second paragraph. But he was completely wrong in the first:

    “The Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society. And to that extent as radical as I think people tried to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn’t that radical. It didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution, as least as it’s been interpreted, and Warren Court interpreted in the same way that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties, says what the states can’t do to you, says what the federal government can’t do to you, but it doesn’t say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf. And that hasn’t shifted.”

    Leftist judicial activism has been an incontrovertible fact since the 1930s, and the Warren Court _was_ radical, in not only that word’s common meaning but in its etymological nature (radix, “root”). The Warren Court was _fundamentally_ activist. Reynolds v. Sims and Roe v. Wade are but two, albeit breathtaking and shocking, examples of this radicalism (truly substituting the left-political views and desires of the Justices for actual law).

    The Constitution and other law in fact do represent the views of those who wrote the laws and those who approved or ratified them. As I have correctly stated so very often, those people who dishonestly deny the fact of judicial activism (“legislation from the bench”) or who falsely claim (at times with low-life attitude) that all laws are “living, breathing,” subject to change of meaning at will or whim, deserve to have their parents’ wills creatively “re-interpreted” (and to be consistent with these people, thus re-defined) to give all the estate to the people specifically never intended to receive any of it, while striking down any claims by the legitimate beneficiaries specified in the will to anything that the now-deceased, “not relevent” former owners wanted them to get.

    And to address income distribution, I have encountered in the past activist trash in a law school (described by a fellow academic as a “constitutional [law] giant”) who says that based on the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble (which is the resort of total, abject failures), and the Fourteenth Amendment, everyone in the USA has the “right” to a guaranteed minimum income provided by the federal government.

    I may add as an extra flourish that I’m among those who have long feared that the Ninth Amendment may be deliberately misconstrued someday by leftists to form the basis of all kinds of “rights” to all kinds of new as well as existing federal entitlements.

  • jdave

    I’ll buy that argument, Austin.

  • pacatrue

    I don’t see how you can read this and decide Obama advocated that the Courts order a redistribution of wealth either. He mentions that they might have attempted to do this, but did not. And then he talks about one of the failures of the Civil Rights movement was in focusing just on those negative rights as asserted through the Warren court, instead of building up the communities to empower such change. So, it seems clear from this small commentary that Obama didn’t say the Court should do this. (He didn’t say either way, but he says they should have focused on community instead of courts.)

    That leaves the single sentence about building coalitions of power which would enable redistribution of wealth, and here, since there’s only one sentence, we all have to guess what he means. Many will read this sentence as saying he wants to take power through these coalitions and then take others’ money and give it to the less well off. Many others will read the sentence as saying we will build up these coalitions so as to fully participate in the society (through jobs, being considered part of the mainstream, community and family support, etc.) which will result in a redistribution of wealth.

    Which is it? We’ve only got a sentence here to guess, but the good news is that Obama’s had some 14 years of legislation on the record. What sorts of things has he pushed? Obama clearly favors progressive taxation. He’s also favored government programs for education and the like. The good news is that those are concrete objectives. We don’t have to wonder what redistribution means, we can decide on something real. Do we agree in progressive taxation and government funding for education, health care, etc., or not? Then vote. Much easier than a divining rod.

  • rmaurer

    Redistribution of wealth is occurring now. Major banking and financial institutions are receiving government aid to keep them afloat, because they greedily cannibalized themselves. They ate themselves out of business. Now the taxpayer will pay to keep them in business so they can continue their feeding. ” Joe Six Pack” and “Joe The Plumber” will continue to work and pay taxes so that the “Fat Cats” on Wall Street and at these financial institutions can continue to receive millions of dollars in golden parachutes and bonuses and stock options and other residual benefits. “Joe Six Pack” and “Joe The Plumber ” will struggle to pay for health care. Their children will get a substandard education. They will send their poorly educated children across the world to fight for “Freedom” and against “Terrorism” only to return home to buy $4 gas, fight to hold onto their homes, and pay for health care that those “Socialist Pig’s” receive free. All the while ” Joe Six Pack” and “Joe The Plumber” and their children pay to keep feeding the redistribution of wealth to the Cannibal Fat Cats who live in the US as they send their businesses to other countries to avoid paying taxes or to feed on the cheap labor of foreign workers. It’s not white vs black or foreigners vs citizens. This is class warfare. The have vs the have nots. The poor vs the wealthy. ” Joe Six Pack” and “Joe The Plumber” think that because they make more than $250,000 they are a member of the haves. Hilarious!! ” Joe Six Pack” and “Joe The Plumber” are one cancerous tumor away from being destitute. One automobile accident away from poverty. One lawsuit away from bankruptcy. The fact that “Joe The Plumber ” had the audacity to come up to Obama and pretend he was on the cusp of buying a business that would make him $250,000 when he actually wasn’t even a licensed plumber, owed back taxes, and was only dreaming of one day buying the business, shows you how delusional ” Joe Six Pack” and “Joe The Plumber” can be at times when it comes to their politics. No one can take your wealth because…….You’re not wealthy!!!! You would be on the receiving side of the distribution. The divisions among race and class have blinded the masses and made them easy to manipulate for political gain.

  • ModDem72

    pacatrue, thank you for your comments as it saved me much time writing similar statements.

    I am having difficulties with the desperate “socialist” label tactic being adopted by those opposing the Obama candidacy. We understand his support for a progressive tax structure. I don’t think that remotely equates socialism, particularly in the light of no government intervention or control, but in some people’s mind maybe it does.

    This idea that somehow one interpretive comment from a civil rights law history discussion from seven years ago will somehow reveal some dark truth over what is already on record and in the public discourse is little bit insulting and more than a little desperate.

  • bootlegger

    All systems of resource distribution are “redistributive” by definition. In capitalism resources are redistributed between the producers, workers and consumers.

    Moreover, the redistribution of wealth is not a primary tenet of socialism any more than equality is a primary tenet of socialism.

    Socialism IS when the state takes control and ownership of the means of production. Period.

    This “Obama is a socialist” tripe simply shows how truly clueless the Right has become.

    My thoughts on listening to Hussein Obama is “damned, that dude is smart”. I’m sick and tired of stupid, Joe Six-Packs running my country. I want someone who is well-read, articulate on multiple topics, and willing to learn and accept new ideas. Hearing him speak intelligently on the Warren Court is a stark contrast to Marble-mouth Bush and Bottom-of-his-class McCain.

    Smart Dude for President!

    • AustinRoth

      bootlegger –

      First, the contention that all systems of resource distribution are ‘re-distributive’ is built on the (false) premise that all such transactions are part of a zero-sum game. That is exactly what Capitalism refutes.

      As for definitions and tenets of Socialism, you have that skewed as well.

      Socialism is “a theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole.” You will notice that distribution of capital, land, etc., is indeed part of the core definition, and a primary tenet.

      • bootlegger

        Nice try with the dictionary. Here’s what mine said: “Socialism refers to a broad set of economic theories of social organization advocating state or collective ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods, and the creation of an egalitarian society.” The key features here are, of course, that some collective entity takes control of the means of production. Since Hussein Obama isn’t advocating this I think it’s clear that his policy are not socialist. Any such claims only refer to the second tenet, the egalitarian distribution of goods, which is also premised on the value of equality (you know, the idea written in some documents from our past, what were those again)? You can’t have socialism without both parts of the idea.

        I don’t know where you got the idea that the distribution off resources is a zero-sum game in Hussein Obama’s argument, but clearly your blinders will only allow you to see that so all I can say is: WTF did you get that from?

        • AustinRoth

          You confuse ‘equality of rights and opportunity’ with ‘equality of results’, like all good Socialists tend to do.

          And my answer about ‘zero-sum’ was based on your absolutely incorrect words, not his, claiming “all systems of resource distribution are ‘re-distributive’.”

          And if you are going to use Wikipedia as your source for a definition of Socialism that meets your preconceived (and incorrect) view of its tenets, then quote the next paragraphs, too, supporting my contention that Socialism IS ‘re-distributive’ at its core:

          “Socialists mainly share the belief that capitalism unfairly concentrates power and wealth among a small segment of society that controls capital and creates an unequal society. All socialists advocate the creation of an egalitarian society, in which wealth and power are distributed more evenly, although there is considerable disagreement among socialists over how, and to what extent this could be achieved.

          Socialism is not a discrete philosophy of fixed doctrine and program; its branches advocate a degree of social interventionism and economic rationalization, sometimes opposing each other. Another dividing feature of the socialist movement is the split on how a socialist economy should be established between the reformists and the revolutionaries. Some socialists advocate complete nationalization of the means of production, distribution, and exchange; while others advocate state control of capital within the framework of a market economy. Social democrats propose selective nationalization of key national industries in mixed economies combined with tax-funded welfare programs; Libertarian socialism (which includes Socialist Anarchism and Libertarian Marxism) rejects state control and ownership of the economy altogether and advocates direct collective ownership of the means of production via co-operative workers’ councils and workplace democracy.”

          • bootlegger

            Since I’m not a socialist, good or otherwise, I’ll assume that you are referring to someone else. I meant equality in all its facets, not the narrow definition that you employ.

            Don’t like Wikipedia? How about Brittanica:
            social and economic doctrine that calls for public rather than private ownership or control of property and natural resources. According to the socialist view, individuals do not live or work in isolation but live in cooperation with one another. Furthermore, everything that people produce is in some sense a social product, and everyone who contributes to the production of a good is entitled to a share in it. Society as a whole, therefore, should own or at least control property for the benefit of all its members.

            Typically, you try to make a straw man out of my argument, the reductio ad absurdum fallacy. You claim that because one aspect of what I say is part of something more general that I must be referring to the more general thing, then set about attacking that more general thing. Clearly, in any of the sources we’ve cited, you can’t have socialism without collective, i.e. state, ownership of the means of production. If Hussein Obama is not advocating this, he cannot be advocating socialism. But hey, if you like knocking down the straw man, dust it off, stand it back up, strap on your helmet and pads and give it another go.

            My statement is not incorrect, all systems of resources distribution are “re-distributive” by definition. When resources pass from one to another they are, in fact, redistributed. Free Marketeers like to use the word “redistribution” to indicate the evil socialist, when in fact capitalism is a redistribution system, albeit one that you favor. You want resources redistributed to those who you believe work harder or have better ideas than others. Personally, I have no problem with rewarding hard work and good ideas. I don’t believe, however, that ALL the resources should be redistributed to these folks. Moreover, it is easily demonstrable that there are many people who work hard and have good ideas who do not share in the redistribution of wealth and that conversely there are many people who acquire resources through redistribution who neither work hard or have good ideas. The answer to this issue, to me and many others, is the progressive tax structure. Now, if that makes me a “socialist” by whatever twisted definition you choose to use then so be it. There is a reason straw men are so easy to knock down.

          • AustinRoth

            The argument of ‘re-distribution’ I am refuting is that, as you put it, all distribution is re-distribution.

            One main tenet of Capitalism is in direct conflict with that statement – wealth (value) can be created. You do not ‘redistribute’ an initial creation of value or wealth, you only initially distribute it. Subsequent, non-value increasing transactions are indeed redistributive in nature.

            Therefore, to believe that all distribution is redistribution is to believe in zero-sum – for one to get more, another must get less. I reject that entire hypothesis, as does Capitalism. Socialism does not.

  • lurxst

    Now we know why most news is written to the 5th grade educational level. Its a combination pathetic/hilarious to watch people try to interpret legal discussions from a mind much keener than their own. Maybe if we could have gotten Bush to explain it.

    “See, there’s these folks over here, and they’re, well, they’re the have nots. And over here we got the haves. And what they have is better access to..uh..its that they have some rights to…er. well they just got to have it.”

    Go back to your GameBoys republican trolls! Nothing to see here.

  • pacatrue

    Excellent, personal insults all around.

    • AustinRoth

      Come on paca, I was being a good boy today!

  • Ricorun

    For what it’s worth, I came across an quotation that helps to put the parts in the clip in better context. It was posted by an anonymous blogger on another site. He didn’t provide an attribution, but it does sound like Obama. Basically, Obama was talking about a particular supreme court case (San Antonio v Rodriguez) which held that unequal funding of Public Schools did not violate the equal protection clause. He wasn’t talking about wealth redistribution in the broad sense, he was referring to things like a right to have schools equally funded, universal legal representation etc. Here’s the quote:

    “A classic example would be something like public education, where after Brown v. Board, a major issue ends up being redistribution — how do we get more money into the schools, and how do we actually create equal schools and equal educational opportunity? Well, the court in a case called San Antonio v. Rodriguez in the early ’70s basically slaps those kinds of claims down, and says, ‘You know what, we as a court have no power to examine issues of redistribution and wealth inequalities. With respect to schools, that’s not a race issue, thats a wealth issue and something and we can’t get into.

    Maybe i am showing my bias here as a legislator as well as a law professor, but you know, I am not optimistic about bringing about major redistributive change through the courts,” he said. “You know the institution just isn’t structured that way. Just look at very rare examples where during he desegregation era the court was willing to, for example, order … changes that cost money to local school district[s], and the court was very uncomfortable with it. It was hard to manage, it was hard to figure out, you start getting into all sorts of separation of powers issues in terms of the court monitoring or engaging in a process that is essentially is administrative and takes a lot of time. The court is not very good at it, and politically it is hard to legitimize opinions from the court in that regard. So i think that although you can craft theoretical justifications for it legally, I think any three of us sitting here could come up with a rationale for bringing about economic change through the courts, I think that as a practical matter that our institutions are just poorly equipped to do it.”

    He’s essentially saying that it was a mistake for activists to try and get judges to legislate from the bench. That the real vehicle for social change is through community organizing, and legislative initiatives.

  • Ricorun

    Upon further searching, I found the archive of the whole interview. It was actually a roundtable discussion with a couple of other guests talking about the general topic of the Supreme Court and civil rights. It’s very interesting. Lots of good history in there.

    • AustinRoth

      Indeed, great find rico.

  • pacatrue

    You super rock, Ricorun. You know, for providing actual info and stuff.

  • indepNH

    There is an aspect of the tax policy discussion that is only occasionally discussed that I believe is as important as the question of what the nominal tax rates are, if they should increase or decrease and what the impact would be on the economy.

    I would suggest that current tax policies and those of either of the candidates continue to support to shifting of money from the upper middle class to the lower middle class, poor and to the rich. I have no problem with the former, the latter bothers me enourmously, particularly since I am one of the upper middle class providing those funds.

    There is a tipping point beyond which the rich have the resources in terms of tax advisors, loopholes, lobbiests, and vehicles that allow them to protect their assets and income from taxes. Those of us below that tipping point but who still make a lot of money are responsible for an unbalanced share of the overall tax burden (IMO).

  • bootlegger

    And yet, when I give my son money and he spends it, doesn’t that “create wealth” in the same way that you suggest? If your argument is simply that the initial distribution is the only one that has real value (to you) then yes, we do fundamentally disagree. I still disagree that progressive tax policies are “socialist”, by definition, and that your argument in that respect amount to a straw man argument.

  • Aaron_Minguez

    well I agree that obamas statments in the audio dont imply outright that he wants to spread the wealth around you have to look at his politics as a whole and what you all seemed to have missed is the quote at the end when Obama was talking to joe the plumber and said on the topic of taxing buisness owners that make over 200k a year quote “that “when you spread the wealth around its good for everybody” end quote right before that he was telling joe that by taxing him it would give the people behind him a chance. now the biggest problem i have with obamas politics is that instead of promoting everyone to do well he would rather drag those who do well back by means of taxation so that others can keep up. That doesnt seem to represent the founding fathers or the constitution too well. Now it may just be that im young, im only 18, but Obama scares the hell out of me

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