Today, Barack Obama gave a brilliant, inspiring, intellectually supple speech--but one that may have done little to solve his festering problem with working class white Americans.
It’s important to distinguish between these two dimensions of today’s remarkable address. Those who actually heard or read Obama’s entire speech will be reminded that he is a true intellectual--a talented writer and lyrical speaker. Is there another person in American politics capable of giving a speech so organic, so devoid of cant and cliche? Certainly not that pedestrian orator, Hillary Clinton. (The lone exception, ironically, might be Bill Clinton.) What Obama said from the lectern in Pennsylvania today sounded like what you’d expect him to say, in less polished form, in a frank scotch-on-the-rocks conversation. I especially admired his keen analysis of how the media treats “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.” That’s one reason it’s sure to be a hit with elite commentators, not to mention racially super-enlightened liberal Democratic primary voters.
But those weren’t the people Obama needed to reach today. His target audience was working class white voters--Reagan Democrats with a historic tendency to let racial prejudice and fear override their other social and economic interests, and whose view of Obama the Jeremiah Wright controversy threaten to permanently warp. That’s one reason Obama sounded a striking note of sympathy for racial resentment within white America:
Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.
Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze--a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, 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.
It will be an epic triumph when American politics puts an end to those distractions. The question is whether a black man can accomplish this. One of Bill Clinton’s greatest political assets (before this campaign) was his ability to be a Nixon-in-China when it came to race; his successful mid-90s defense of affirmative action is a perfect example.
For Obama, the task is far more complicated. Perhaps I’m too cynical, but I suspect today’s speech may fail to meet its goal of assuaging white America in two ways.
The first is the way the speech will be filtered through the media. Many headlines are already focusing on his condemnation of Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s rhetoric. But Obama also refused to rhetorically dump Wright. Instead he argued that “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.” This is a complex and nuanced point--one which, taken from the context of Obama’s larger assessment of race in America, won’t satisfy people horrified by a preacher who blamed 9/11 on U.S. policies. Other headlines are likely to focus on Obama’s overall call for racial reconciliation and a more perfect union. Obama said, quite rightly, that the recent flaps over Wright and Geraldine Ferraro “reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through--a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.” But the question is whether working class voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania and West Virginia and elsewhere believe, particularly in a stalled economy, that racially perfecting the union really ought to be a central goal of the next president. I would like to believe so. I’m not convinced they do. (A related point: Obama’s speech was almost entirely devoted to the black-white divide. As a strategic political matter, he may have inadvisably glossed over the role of Latinos, who foster as much resentment towards black America as do whites.)
The second way in which Obama’s speech may have come up short was the scant attention it devoted to social failures within the black community. This, again, was a theme that Bill Clinton used masterfully to establish himself as both a student of black culture and someone unwilling to indulge its worst excesses. It’s true that Obama did urge blacks to avoid “becoming victims of our past,” and take “full responsibility for our own lives--by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them.” But this was a small part of his speech and not at all its tonal emphasis. Yet it seems quite likely that millions of white voters still see black America as indulgent of criminality and insufficiently devoted to education and work. Obama’s fleeting lines about victimhood and reading to children do little to address that audience. As an alternative, Obama might have benefitted from invoking the example of Bill Cosby, who has morphed from comedian to one of black America’s sharpest internal critics. “Your dirty laundry gets out of school at 2:30 every day, it's cursing and calling each other [the N-word] as they're walking up and down the street. They think they're hip. They can't read. They can't write. They're laughing and giggling, and they're going nowhere,” Cosby told a group of black activists in 2004 (who, it should be noted, cheered him on). There was nothing like that here from Obama.
Finally, I can’t help but think of the familiar complaint that Obama’s rhetoric is wonderful--but the specifics of the change he promises are fuzzier. In an entire speech about race in America, Obama never so much as mentioned affirmative action. He laments the state of our disgraceful public school system--yet his own platform doesn’t promise the kind of revolutionary (and expensive) overhaul that system requires. Making decisions about the allocation of resources is where things get really tricky, but Obama steered away from those questions.
The information era being what it is, I was already debating my thesis via email with an Obama aide as I wrote this reaction. He warned me against assuming that Reagan Democrats are defined by the same racial prejudices that defined them in the 1980s, back when crime and welfare were primary political issues, when one Willie Horton could turn an election. He may be right. I hope he is. Unfortunately, I fear that America hasn’t come nearly as far as he hopes. But it is the answer to that question that will determine the fate of Barack Obama.
Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic.