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Obama's Challenge To...everybody

Barack Obama's great speeches have generally taken place in the same sorts of settings. His keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention, his victory speeches after South Carolina, Wisconsin, and the Potomac primaries--Obama gave all of the addresses before large, boisterous audiences. The speeches had a certain raw power, which Obama drew from the assembled crowds. They were memorable, yes, but as much for how Obama spoke as for what Obama said.

Not today. This was a different, more unsettled political moment. And so Obama decided to give a different, more unconventional sort of speech. Inside Philadelphia's National Constitution Center, there was no huge crowd--no throngs of young people waving signs and cheering his every word. The stage itself was simple--just a plain wooden podium in front of an unadorned blue curtain, flanked on either side by a set of American flags.

It was as if Obama and his advisors knew that, this time, the candidate's legendary speaking skills were largely irrelevant. The delivery wouldn't count for anything. It would be all about the substance.

And the substance was true to the setting. I have never heard a political speech quite like this one. But, then, it really wasn't a political speech per se. A political speech would have been shorter, more simplistic, and more tightly focused. It would have hit all the right political notes, with maybe a dash of iconoclasm thrown in just so the pundits could marvel over his ability to stand on principle.

No, this speech was something else entirely--long and winding and intellectually honest; imprudent and, in many ways, impolitic. It was far from flawless rhetorically. Parts of it might best be described as tortured, the work of somebody struggling to convey complicated and deeply held beliefs in a context famously hostile to both ambiguity and honesty.

But in that candor lay its strength. While I have no idea how it will play out politically, I thought it made an elegant and, at times, brilliant argument--not just for the Obama candidacy but also for the modern liberal agenda.


Obama began by quoting the preamble to the Constitution--a tribute to the geographical setting, certainly, but also a way to set down an early marker. He was signalling to the audience that this would ultimately be a speech about transcending division and finding unity, even if it would end up taking him a very long time to return to that point.

From there, he quickly moved to the matter at hand, the now-infamous remarks by his controversial pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. As before, Obama rejected those remarks in clear and specific terms, saying "they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam."

Since videos of Wright's speeches have circulated, many of his supporters have feared that reporters would dig up more incriminating details--like, say, the fact that Obama had actually heard such remarks in person. Obama dispensed with that issue, too, by confirming that the suspicion was absolutely correct: "Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes."

And then Obama went further, linking both Wright and the church to the very real complexities of the African-American community:

Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety--the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions--the good and the bad--of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother--a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

From there, Obama went on to argue something even more risky, at least by modern political standards: that the bitterness Wright and, more broadly, the African-American community feels makes sense. He spoke at length about the racial disparities that still exist--and the legacy of discrimination black Americans still feel. He didn't condone the anger Wright feels, but he didn't entirely condemn it, either. "For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. ...  the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races."

But having explained and justified the African-American community's anger, Obama pivoted rhetorically, first by noting its analogue in the white community--if not in quite as sympathetic terms, then at least with a very clear measure of understanding: "Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. ... They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. ... to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.

And here, finally, Obama came to his overarching point--that racial anger from both whites and blacks, however understandable, is an impediment to progress; that the answer to the grievances of both communities lies in finding common purpose. Having spent the first two-thirds of his speech explaining and, at times, justifying racial politics, he decided to spend the last third making an impassioned plea to move past it--both for the sake of political expediency and as an expression of common identity.

Affordable health care, better schools, economic security--the way to achieve all of these things, Obama said, is to reject racial politics once and for all. And while that meant African-Americans had to show a little more individual responsiblity--Obama once again called upon African-American fathers to spend more time with their children, although I was surprised he didn't do more of this sort of thing--it also meant people of all races accepting some collective responsibility for every citizen's well-being: "Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us.  Let us be our sister’s keeper.  Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well."


The theme of unity, of course, is not a new one for Obama. It's been the overarching idea of his campaign. But, at least in the context of the Democratic nominating race, he's generally talked about it as an antidote to partisanship--an argument that I, like a lot of people, have always viewed skeptically.

Partly that's because railing against "partisan bickering" is now the ultimate political cliche, and partly that's because I happen to think partisanship has value. Partisanship, after all, can mean holding dear a set of principles about what society should look like--and recognizing that, sometimes, you have to fight for them.

The appeal to unity Obama made just now struck me as fundamentally different--and not only because Obama directly attacked Republicans for using race to "gin up votes." It was different because racial politics really don't have value in American politics. Moving past them would be a genuinely good thing.

Today's version of the unity argument was also notable for its ambition. Towards the very end of his speech, Obama suggested that America faced a choice:

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.

Note who Obama is implicitly challenging here: Reverend Wright* and his followers, the Clinton campaign, the media, conservatives, the viewing public, the voter. In other words, he's challenging everybody.

Can that sort of appeal work in American politics? And, more broadly, can such a complicated argument carry the day when it is reduced, as it inevitably will be, to 15-second sound bites on the evening news? I have no idea. But I would like to think it can.

Edit: Ugh, inadvertantly wrote "Reverend White" in the original. 

--Jonathan Cohn