By Ashley Killough
(CNN) — On the eve of the first presidential debate, conservative media outlets seized on footage of a five-year-old speech by then-candidate Barack Obama, who argued at the time that the federal government discriminated against Hurricane Katrina victims.
The June 2007 speech at Hampton University in Virginia was widely covered, as Obama was already well into his presidential campaign. However, the conservative news outlets that pushed the video Tuesday night argued the media skipped over portions of the speech.
Speaking to a largely black audience, Obama in the video made the case that race relations still had a long way to go in the United States, claiming the divide most severely has an impact on impoverished parts of the country.
The 2007 event was not a closed, secret gathering. It was open to the press, and CNN affiliate WAVY filmed the full speech. The crux of his speech was reported by CNN at the time.
In the re-circulated version of the video Tuesday, however, conservatives especially jumped on a moment in the speech when the president appeared to stray away from his prepared remarks and blast the government for allegedly treating victims of the Sept. 11 attacks differently than those of Hurricane Katrina.
In the speech, delivered before a minister’s conference, Obama first spelled out a provision in the Stafford Act that requires local and state governments to match a certain percentage of federal funds provided for emergency assistance. The law currently says those state and local governments must share 25% or less of the cost of “essential assistance.”
“Some states, for example, have established a 15% local and a 10% state match combination,” the law stipulates.
Obama, however, slammed the government for not waiving the matching funds in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane.
“Now here’s the thing, when 9/11 happened in New York City, they waived the Stafford Act – said, ‘This is too serious a problem. We can’t expect New York City to rebuild on its own’,” Obama said, growing emotional. “And that was the right thing to do. When Hurricane Andrew struck in Florida, people said, ‘Look at this devastation. We don’t expect you to come up with y’own money, here. Here’s the money to rebuild. We’re not gonna wait for you to scratch it together – because you’re part of the American family’.”
He continued: “What’s happening down in New Orleans? ‘Where’s your dollar? Where’s your Stafford Act money?’ Makes no sense. Tells me that somehow, the people down in New Orleans, they don’t care about as much!”
In the years since Katrina, the government has taken steps to expedite assistance and funds to the ravished Gulf Coast. As of the disaster’s seventh anniversary, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had spent $19.1 billion in Louisiana alone to help victims of Katrina and Hurricane Rita.
Critics also highlighted comments Obama made about his pastor at the time, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Standing on stage, Obama pointed to Wright in the audience and described him as “the guy who puts up with me, counsels me, listens to my wife complain about me.”
“He’s a friend and a great leader. Not just in Chicago, but all across the country,” he added.
Less than a year later, the presidential candidate would be forced to distance himself from Wright after video emerged of the reverend making controversial comments about race in a sermon.
Some conservatives argued Obama’s 2007 praise of Wright represented his true feelings about the pastor.
Throughout the 2007 remarks, Obama called for more investment and job training in poor communities and minority-owned businesses. His speech was targeted to his audience and tailored with themes of “hope” and “overcoming obstacles” that are traditionally heard in black churches.
The then-senator ended his remarks, saying: “America will survive. Just like black folks will survive. We won’t forget where we came from. We won’t forget what happened 19 months ago, or 15 years ago, or 300 years ago.”
Conservative blogs and news websites lit up Tuesday afternoon when the right-leaning news aggregator, Drudge Report, first alerted that a television network would be releasing “curious tape” that would “ignite accusations of racism–in both directions.”
Matt Drudge, who runs the site, later tweeted the network was facing an “internal debate” over whether to air the footage on the night before the cycle’s first presidential debate.
Blogs began to publish a YouTube link of the suspected video–a nearly 10 minute clip of the same 2007 speech. Many reporters quickly noted the address was fairly well known and was broadly covered five years ago.
However, at 9 p.m. ET, Fox News’ Sean Hannity, the conservative news website “The Daily Caller” and Drudge released what they described as an “exclusive” video of the nearly 40 minute speech, which included the comments about Sept. 11 and Katrina, which were not seen in the nine-minute YouTube video.
While some on Twitter stoked speculation that Mitt Romney’s campaign may have been part of the timing of the video’s publicity, the GOP nominee’s team denied being tied to the media effort.
“We did not have any involvement,” Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in a statement to CNN.
Democratic commentators fired back after portions of the speech aired Tuesday night, saying the remarks were old and blown out of proportion.
“I think that there is no material significance here, but the Republicans are very good at taking nothing and turning it into what appears to be something,” Boyce Watkins, founder of yourblackworld.com, said on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360.”
He added: “We have to remember that we live in a country that has for 400 years been poisoned by the psychological disease of racism and it doesn’t take much to spark that back up.”
Countering, conservative blogger and CNN contributor Erick Erickson said Obama’s comments were telling of the president’s personal views on race in the United States.
“He’s addressing a largely black crowd and making the point that very clearly, that they in New Orleans got treated differently from people in New York and people in Florida because they somehow weren’t part of the American community,” Erickson said. “That’s fanning the flames.”
Obama’s re-election campaign also weighed in late Tuesday night, calling it an attempt to change the subject from “(Romney’s) comments attacking half of the American people,” referring to secretly-recorded video of Romney saying 47% of Americans do not pay federal income taxes and are “victims” dependent on the government.
“The only thing shocking about this is that they apparently think it’s wrong to suggest that we should help returning veterans, children leaving foster care and other members of Mitt Romney’s 47 percent get training that will allow them to find the best available jobs. If the Romney campaign believes that Americans will accept these desperate attacks tomorrow night in place of specific plans for the middle class, it’s they who are in for a surprise,” Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said in a statement to CNN.
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