Three panelists who appeared with President Barack Obama at the 1998 conference where he mentioned “redistribution” agree that his comments were wrongly taken out of context by the conservative press and some mainstream media outlets.
The panelists at the Loyola University event also recall then-state senator Obama discussing funding of education and other social programs through foundations and public funds.
“Shame on them,” said Maureen Hellwig, who was a program coordinator for the Policy Research Action Group, a consortium of non-profit community organizations, when she appeared on the panel. “How do you take one phrase and say therefore this person is a socialist? You need to know a lot more about him, give other examples. He wasn't discussing socialism at the meeting, he was discussing distribution of public funds to produce good public adult education.”
The conference made news this week after a video clip of Obama at the event was posted on YouTube and picked up by The Drudge Report and several news outlets.
Initially, Drudge linked to a video clip with a photo of Obama and the headline, “I actually believe in redistribution.” That quote was picked up by Gateway Pundit blogger Jim Hoft who used the video to call Obama “America's Socialist In Chief.”
But the quote flagged by Drudge and other conservatives left off the end of Obama's sentence: “at least at a certain level to make sure that everybody's got a shot.”
Obama was talking about the role of government in providing services, but also criticizing ineffective forms of government. For instance, Obama says in the audio, “We do have to be innovative in thinking, what are the delivery systems that are actually effective and meet people where they live?”
He was speaking broadly about pooling resources to make sure that everyone has fair access.
Transcript of the YouTube audio:
OBAMA: Let me just close by saying, as we think about the policy research surrounding the issues that I just named, policy research for the working poor, broadly defined, I think that what we're going to have to do is somehow resuscitate the notion that government action can be effective at all. There has been a systematic -- I don't think it's too strong to call it a propaganda campaign against the possibility of government action and its efficacy. And I think some of it has been deserved. Chicago Housing Authority has not been a model of good policymaking. And neither necessarily have been the Chicago Public Schools.
What that means, then, is, is that as we try to resuscitate this notion that we're all in this thing together, leave nobody behind, we do have to be innovative in thinking, what are the delivery systems that are actually effective and meet people where they live? And my suggestion, I guess, would be that the trick -- and this is one of the few areas where I think there are technical issues that have to be dealt with, as opposed to just political issues -- I think the trick is figuring out how do we structure government systems that pool resources and hence facilitate some redistribution, because I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level to make sure that everybody's got a shot.
But that didn't stop several news outlets, including Fox News, from hyping the edited clip and failing to offer full context to suggest that Obama is a closet extremist.
NBC News posted and reported on the full context of the clip Thursday, stating on its website:
Mitt Romney's campaign this week has pounced on a 14-year-old clip of Obama speaking about “redistribution” in October 1998 at a conference in Chicago, in which the future president seems to extol the virtues of redistributing wealth.
Yet NBC News has obtained the entirety of the relevant remarks, which includes additional comments by Obama that weren't included in the video circulated by Republicans. That omission features additional words of praise for “competition” and the “marketplace” by the then-state senator.
The Loyola event, titled: “Conference on Chicago Research and Public Policy,” was held on October 19-20, 1998, a Loyola spokesman told Media Matters.
He described it in an email as a “two-day event, held at Loyola University Chicago's Lake Shore Campus, sponsored by the Urban Universities Collaborative and 10 community sponsors.”
Carlos DeJesus was executive director of Latinos United, a Chicago housing advocacy group, when he appeared on the panel. His recollection:
“At no time do I remember him saying anything about taking from the wealthy, unless you are identifying the wealthy as the foundations. The context was principally around foundations giving and access to state funding for advocacy work and policy work. I am shocked that [redistribution of wealth] would come up in the nature of that conference. This was not the nature of the conference.”
DeJesus, now a high school principal in Chicago, agreed that Obama's comments were misreported initially.
“I have to think that it was significantly out of context,” he said. "I remember being at the podium, it was a panel with Barack. I do not remember comments that would have made my jaw drop.
“I have seen some of the clips. I think what happens, at times like this, they are trying to disparage Barack as much as possible, especially in light of the comments that Mitt Romney made at that fundraiser in Florida. It seems like they're wanting to, from my perspective, grasp at straws.”
DeJesus also recalled that the discussion related to the distribution of public funding and foundation funding for education.
“What I remember, I was speaking on policy as it relates to funders, the purpose of my presentation was to talk about how important it is for foundations to fund policy issues,” he explained. “Barack's role was as a state legislator to talk about what sorts of policy initiatives there are and the role of foundations relative to being able to fund policy concerns, being able to fund organizations that are striving to achieve policy change.”
Hellwig recalls the panel discussing funding for community-based organizations and education.
“The non-profit organizations wanted to be able to get some direct funding to do adult education in their communities rather than have to only use instructors that were sent to them by city colleges,” she recalled.
“We felt that some dollars should go to city colleges, but some should also come directly to community-based organizations and eventually we won that so that now CBO's can get funded directly to do adult education so maybe that is what he was referring to in terms of redistributing wealth.”
Paul Kleppner, who served as director of the Office of Social Policy Research at Northern Illinois University when he was on the panel, recalls Obama as someone who would not say such controversial things.
“The Barack Obama I knew in those days as a state senator was always very cautious in what he would say. He is very policy oriented,” Kleppner, now retired, said. “It strikes me as very unlikely that someone who has always been very cautious about what he said, that anyone in that position would make a comment that would be as glaringly negative or could be used in a negative way against him, that seemed very unlikely to me.”
Asked about coverage of the clip this week, he stated:
“The original clip comes out, they think that's it and now the broader clip comes out with the full context. Clearly the full context should have been given.”