Michael Crowley: Obama's Speech Was Brilliant, But Will The Complexity Of His Message Reach The People It Needs To?
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.
Jonathan Chait: The Politics Of Obama's Speech
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.
Eve Fairbanks: Obama Doubled Down On Race, In A Good Way
Jon, it'll be nice if Obama's speech can de-racialize the discourse of the campaign. But he certainly didn't take the most direct way to that end, which would have been to argue for minimizing the significance of the "racial tiffs," that they represent the views of minorities and are unrelated to what his broader campaign is about, etc. He didn't do that. He deepened their significance, making both Ferraro and Wright stand-ins for big communities within the American body politic.
Here's what struck me as the key passage of Obama's speech, related to the passage he cited:
This is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy - particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.
But I have asserted a firm conviction - a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people - that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice is we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances - for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs - to the larger aspirations of all Americans -- the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. [emph. added]
Key because it suggests the beginnings of a way to get past the "racial stalemate" beyond just ceasing to talk about it--beyond just ceasing to, as Obama put it, "play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel, every day," which is a good idea but which won't do that much to assuage the kind of long-simmering racial resentments he discussed in the bulk of the speech. We could, though, all do better at binding our grievances to those of others. The line was a wonderful allusion to Lincoln, too--he who called on us, in his second inaugural, to "bind up the nation's wounds." We never fully did what Lincoln asked.
I do think Obama defined his candidacy more in terms of race today, but I guess from my perspective that's a good thing. His calls for "change" always left me a little cold: change what? After hearing his speech, the "what?" feels clearer.
Josh Patashnik: Resolving The Obama Tension
Ever since Barack Obama kicked off his presidential campaign, it seemed to me that the tension at the heart of his campaign was this: He's been running--sometimes overtly, sometimes just implicitly--as a transformational candidate who'd transcend petty division and usher in a new era in American politics. Yet his entire intellectual persona--from his minimalism and suspicion of grand theories, to his conscious choice to reject his mother's mid-twentieth-century universalism and embrace his identity as a black man in Chicago, to his "almost Burkean" respect for social norms--seemed like that of a man who'd be rightly wary of such a campaign, were it being waged by someone other than himself. You can't be both Burkean and transformational, or at least not very easily.
Obama's speech today wasn't perfect: It was too long, and at times his delivery seemed overly stiff and aloof. And it remains to be seen how effective it will be politically in distancing himself from Jeremiah Wright--something tells me that controversy isn't going away anytime soon. But the speech was exceptionally well written (Obama apparently wrote the entire thing himself), and more importantly, it provided some answer to the question of how he resolves that central tension. To me, the most important passage in the speech was this:
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.
Obama isn't pretending to be able to transcend these things. He's not offering himself as a candidate who'll change society so that people like his grandmother no longer shy away from black men walking down the street. Such a thing may not really even be possible. Nor, it's clear, does he somehow want to render partisanship or ideology irrelevant: In addition to being about race, the speech contained quite a bit of distinctly liberal economic rhetoric. But, then, in what sense is he a transformational figure? Says Cliff May: "Fewer will see him as they did: a different breed of politician, one who transcends race and party, an agent of beneficient and desirable 'change.' " Isn't he misleading the country, then, when he talks in such terms?
Maybe a little. But there's a difference between denying the reality of social division and simply choosing to emphasize the positive instead: Things can get better, little by little. The "unity" that Obama frequently invokes is really just a more articulate, slightly deeper reformulation of the traditional campaign pablum that what Americans share in common is more important than that which divides us:
I would not be running for President if I didn't believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country. This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.
Perhaps Obama's real achievement is that he takes this usual boilerplate rhetoric and makes it sound fresh and exciting--indeed, that he pulls off the remarkable trick of making it the centerpiece of a campaign. That doesn't seem like something that ought to be condemned. Why, after all, would one choose run a campaign explicitly predicated on the notion that ideological, regional, and class divisions will never be overcome and should be openly embraced? Shouldn't we want our politicians to be both clear-eyed about the persistence of social cleavages and optimistic about the possibility of narrowing them?
Jonathan Cohn: 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."
But here is where the speech turned interesting. At this point, I assume, the conventional political playbook called for disowning Wright and the church--and, perhaps, expressing a measure of contrition. Obama did no such thing. Instead, he explained that life is a lot more complicated than modern political rhetoric seems to allow--that this same man who said those reprehensible things in church was also a former Marine who had inspired thousands, including Obama, to do good works and discover their faith; that this this same institution was also a pillar of its community, "housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS."
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.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic. Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at The New Republic. Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic. Eve Fairbanks is an associate editor at The New Republic. Josh Patashnik is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.
By Jonathan Chait, Jonathan Cohn, Michael Crowley, Eve Fairbanks, and Josh Patashnik