In his first U.S. appearance after a nine-day foreign tour, Sen. Barack Obama told a convention of minority journalists in Chicago today that he believes affirmative action will still be needed, even if the nation elects its first black president.
Obama also criticized Republican challenger Sen. John McCain for a position he took earlier Sunday in support of a proposed ballot initiative in Arizona that would prohibit affirmative action policies from state and local governments.
"I am disappointed that John McCain flipped," the Illinois Democrat said during an appearance broadcast on CNN before an alliance of minority journalists called UNITY gathered at the McCormick Place convention center.
McCain, who made his remarks on ABC's "This Week," has previously called similar efforts "divisive," although he has also consistently expressed opposition to hiring quotas based on race while supporting affirmative action in limited cases.
Obama said the ballot initiatives like the one being considered in McCain's home state are "all too often designed to drive a wedge between people."
While saying he is a "strong supporter" of affirmative action, Obama said it must also be structured so that it is not just a quota system.
"We are becoming a more diverse culture, and it's something that has to be acknowledged," he said. "I've also said that affirmative action is not going to be the long-term solution to the problems of race in American because, frankly, if you've got 50 percent of African-American or Latino kids dropping out of high school, it doesn't really matter what you do in terms of affirmative action. Those kids are not getting into college....There have been times where affirmative action has been viewed as a shortcut to solving some of these broader, long-term, structural problems."
Obama said minority children who come from wealthy homes should not be given greater consideration for college, for example, than "a poor white kid who has struggled more."
He also expressed reservations about making reparations to African Americans and other groups for past deeds. "The best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people that are unemployed," Obama said.
McCain declined an invitation to speak to the journalism group, which says it represents nearly 10,000 members of the Asian American Journalists Association, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the Native American Journalists Association.
Obama was also asked whether in his repeated efforts to denounce false rumors that he is a Muslim he has gone too far, thus hurting impressions of Muslim Americans, including some who believe he should visit a mosque, as he has done with churches and synagogues.
"This is a classic example of a no win situation, right?," he responded. "So, I try to correct something that is false, and then people say, well why are you correcting this thing in a way that isn't sufficiently, ah, well, let me put it this way: first of all, I have repeatedly on various occasions said, I am not a Muslim, but this whole strategy of suggesting that I am is indicative of anti-Muslim sentiment that we have to fight against. So, maybe you haven't see those quotes, but they're out there and I have said them on more than one occasion....I just don't like the idea of somebody falsely identifying my religion...If you were a Muslim and somebody consistently said that you were a Christian, I suspect that you would want to have that corrected because that's offensive to your faith. I think my credentials on supporting Muslim Americans are very strong."
Obama reminded the audience that he spoke out against discrimination of Arab Americans in his 2004 Democratic national convention speech in 2004.
"I have visited mosques here in my community, repeatedly, and met with Muslim leaders on a wide range of occasions," he said. "So, what I would ask is that I am treated like other candidates in terms of expectations, and that people look at my entire record."
Obama was asked a follow-up question on whether he could have gotten as far as he has, had he been a Muslim.
"That's a hypothetical that I don't know how to answer," he said. "I will tell you this that the American people are more tolerant and more open minded than I think a lot of the pundits give them credit for."
Obama also reflected on his foreign trip and his return to Chicago Saturday evening, saying he had not gotten enough sleep and planned to take a nap Sunday afternoon.
He said he was surprised by a rare airport greeting by his wife and two daughters.
"Usually, I have to beg just to make sure that they're not asleep when I get home," he said. "But they surprised me at the airport, which was wonderful."
Obama said his tour of the Middle East and Europe revealed to him that the "world is waiting for the United States to reengage."
He said a crowd of 200,000 he attracted for a speech in Berlin showed "how hungry" Europe is for more American involvement.
"If we can get more support for actions in Afghanistan, those are fewer troops from the United States that we need to send," he said. "It is very difficult for us to meet these 21st Century challenges, unless we've got more effective partnerships with our allies and other countries overseas, and I think they are ready for it, and it offers the next president enormous opportunity."
Obama expressed confidence that he was well received by foreign leaders. "If you talk to the people I met with, they feel confident that I know what I'm talking about and what I'm doing," he said.
He said meeting with foreign leaders is "part of the job" he is applying for, so he should not be questioned on whether he showed too much audacity in making the trip.
"Now, I'll admit we did it really well, but that shouldn't be a strike against me," he added.
When pressed on why he seems hesitant to express regret for his opposition of a troop surge in Iraq that many now view as successful, Obama responded that a more fundamental question should be asked of McCain.
"I have not heard yet somebody ask John McCain whether his vote to go into Iraq was a mistake," he said. "I haven't, during the entire week that we were having this conversation."
Obama said he plans to pivot his campaign's message from foreign policy back to the economy this week, as he meets Monday with economic advisors in Washington, including former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and investor Warren Buffett.
Obama's appearance at UNITY coincided with renewed efforts by his campaign to appeal to minority journalists and media properties.
A week ago, Corey Ealons was named "communications director for African American media," essentially replacing Candice Tolliver, who is moving to the Democratic National Committee as director of surrogate booking.
The appeal will also be made at a more local level. Late last week, for example, the campaign announced a new "deputy communications director for the Tampa Bay area and African American media."
As he did selectively during the primary season, Obama will also seek to use local and national African-American radio and television stations in making his appeal.
The Black Entertainment Television network has already said it plans to broadcast Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic national convention next month, something it does not intend to do for McCain.
At UNITY, the applause was restrained, after organizers reminded conference participants that the appearance was being nationally broadcast and they should make every effort to maintain "professional decorum."
Still, Obama received a standing ovation from many in the audience at the start and end of his appearance. There was also a rush toward the stage after his speech, as Obama shook hands and signed autographs.
One journalist was also overheard wishing him luck, while another squealed, "He touched me!" as she left the ballroom.
Before Obama arrived, a panel discussed the question of journalistic objectivity, including whether journalists should clap for politicians when they appear.
"The mainstream media loves John McCain. They cheer for him all the time. And now we're going to tell our black journalists, our Hispanic journalists, that they can't clap for Obama?" African-American columnist Les Payne responded.