With a couple hours to mull it over, my tentative conclusion is that Obama's speech is politically smart. His over-riding imperative was not just to stop answering questions about Jeremiah Wright, it was also to get out of Ferraroworld -- in other words, to stop allowing his campaign to be defined by racial tiffs. I don't know if he'll succeed, bu the speech was probably the best he could have done to accomplish it.
Obama did a couple things toward that end. The first was to discuss white and black racial grievance in a sophisticated way. This was the answer to critics who say he thinks he can transcend race, or wipe away the sins of racism merely through becoming president. You can't accuse him of simply trying to float above racial issues.
Secondly, he gave himself a pivot to define the racialized discourse as something he wants to rise above. He's willing to discuss race on his terms -- in subtle and sophisticated ways. He refuses to engage in a daily tit-for-tat about Wright, Ferraro, the race card, and all the rest. This, I think, is the key passage of the speech, at least from a political standpoint:
For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.
We can do that.
But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.
That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.” This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.
From there he proceeds to discuss health care, jobs, and the basic Democratic litany. That's the message of the speech going forward: I just spoke at length and in depth about race, but from now on my campaign is not going to be about race. That's where I think he's going to go with this. To what extent he'll succeed is another question altogether.