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Was This Obama's Best Speech Yet? Maybe.

I'll leave the sophisticated electoral analysis to my more sophisticated colleagues, Noam and Mike.  But I have to say something about Obama's speech, which is the best I've seen him give in a while, if not the entire campaign. That's a high standard, I know, but I think it's true.

Tonight's address was every bit as lyrical as the speech Obama gave in Iowa. And it touched on many of the same themes, about healing division and building a movement of voters seeking change. But those themes weren't as front-and-center as they were earlier in the month. Instead, Obama put more emphasis on the movement's purpose – for delivering real, tangible things like health insurance, better schools, and higher paying jobs.

Obama also took a direct jab at the Bush Administration – which isn't as typical for him as you might think. Quite in contrast to Clinton and Edwards, Obama doesn't tend to dwell on Bush and the Republicans. His speeches are all about changing Washington, ending partisan bickering, and such. This time, I thought it noteworthy that one of his first lines was a more direct criticism: “All of us share an abiding desire to end the disastrous policies of the current administration.”

Of course, that was a lead-in to a more pointed discussion of Clinton's – or, I should say, the Clintons' – tactics of recent days: "We are looking for more than just a change of party in the White House. We're looking to fundamentally change the status quo in Washington - a status quo that extends beyond any particular party. And right now, that status quo is fighting back with everything it's got; with the same old tactics that divide and distract us from solving the problems people face, whether those problems are health care they can't afford or a mortgage they cannot pay." [Emphasis mine.]

Later Obama confronted the experience issue head-on: “We are up against the conventional thinking that says your ability to lead as President comes from longevity in Washington or proximity to the White House. But we know that real leadership is about candor, and judgment, and the ability to rally Americans from all walks of life around a common purpose - a higher purpose.” And while I continue to worry that Obama is naive about the nature of Washington politics -- and the kind of opposition his ideas will provoke in Republicans -- I couldn't help but chuckle when he criticized “the kind of partisanship where you're not even allowed to say that a Republican had an idea -- even if it's one you never agreed with.”

To my ears, the best passage of all came towards the end:

And what we've seen in these last weeks is that we're also up against forces that are not the fault of any one campaign, but feed the habits that prevent us from being who we want to be as a nation. It's the politics that uses religion as a wedge, and patriotism as a bludgeon. A politics that tells us that we have to think, act, and even vote within the confines of the categories that supposedly define us. The assumption that young people are apathetic. The assumption that Republicans won't cross over. The assumption that the wealthy care nothing for the poor, and that the poor don't vote. The assumption that African-Americans can't support the white candidate; whites can't support the African-American candidate; blacks and Latinos can't come together.

But we are here tonight to say that this is not the America we believe in. I did not travel around this state over the last year and see a white South Carolina or a black South Carolina. I saw South Carolina. I saw crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children. I saw shuttered mills and homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from all walks of life, and men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag. I saw what America is, and I believe in what this country can be.”

Note how this section ties the unity theme to the struggles of average Americans. Note how it salutes patriotism. And note how it puts efforts to divide the voters by race in their proper place, alongside efforts to turn religion and patriotism into wedge issues.

Throughout these sections -- indeed, throughout the entire speech -- Obama never said the word “Clinton.”  It wasn't necessary. This was a defiant, if cool, speech -- one that challenged his opponents even as it called upon the idealism of his supporters.

You can't judge a candidate on one speech, any more than you can evaluate a candidacy's prospects based on one night's returns. But tonight's remarks certainly suggest that Obama can get tough when he has to be, which is something a lot of people (myself included) have questioned from time to time.

--Jonathan Cohn