November 3rd, 2008
05:20 PM ET
14 years ago

Fact check: Did Obama really advocate 'redistributing wealth'?

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="Did Obama really call for redistributing wealth?"]The Statement

At a campaign event Thursday, October 30, in Defiance, Ohio, Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain said, "So we finally learned what Senator Obama's goals are ... to spread the wealth. In a radio interview revealed this week, he said the same thing, that one of the - quote - tragedies of the civil rights movement is that it didn't bring about redistributive change. You see, Senator Obama believes in redistributing wealth and income, not in policies that grow our economy and create jobs."

Get the facts!

The Facts

McCain was referring to a radio program that aired January 18, 2001, on Chicago public radio station WBEZ. Obama and two other law professors took part in a panel discussion titled "The Court and Civil Rights," focusing on U.S. Supreme Court rulings primarily in the 1950s and '60s. Obama was a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School and an Illinois state senator at the time of the program.

During the 53-minute program, the discussion of "redistributive change" was started by one of the other professors in the context of how civil rights lawyers and courts interacted decades ago on issues such as poverty.

Obama said, "One of the tragedies of the civil rights movement was because the civil rights movement became so court-focused I think there was tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing and 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."

McCain's statement links Obama's "redistributive change" reference in 2001 to "redistributing wealth and income," a line of attack his campaign has used to suggest Obama wants to change the tax code in a way that would take money from some wage earners and give it to others - including those who don't pay taxes.

Obama's campaign says McCain twisted Obama's words from the program. "In this seven-year-old interview, Senator Obama did not say that the courts should get into the business of redistributing wealth at all," Obama spokesman Bill Burton said in a written statement. Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, an Obama legal advisor, said Obama was discussing "redistribution" in a narrow legal context.

A legal expert contacted by CNN said "redistributive change" has no specific definition in legal terminology. Mary L. Dudziak of the University of Southern California Law School said that, after listening to the entire 53-minute program from 2001, "nothing in the interview suggests that he's (Obama) thinking of redistribution of income directly from one person to another."

Dudziak, a legal scholar and historian whose expertise includes constitutional law, likened "redistributive change" as used in the context of the program to "restructuring governance." Obama and the other two professors were talking in legal academic terms about who should deal with various issues - courts or legislatures - not about how a specific issue should be dealt with, she said.

The discussion program focused on U.S. Supreme Court cases "that have a 'redistributive' impact in that the (Supreme) Court was asked to order that government resources be spent to fix a problem," Dudziak said in an e-mail. "That is 'redistributive' if we think of federal tax dollars being shifted from one program to another."

The Verdict:

Misleading. During the panel discussion, Obama talked about court rulings and "redistributive change" from a historical legal perspective but there's no indication that he was advocating "redistributing wealth and income" as McCain's statement implies.

Filed under: Candidate Barack Obama • Fact Check • John McCain
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