Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama's Speech

My first impression is that it's one of the most impressive and important speeches of our time. I've certainly never heard a speech from a politician, American or otherwise, dating from my lifetime, that is in this caliber. It's simple and forthright in the sense of being completely devoid of the condescension and pandering that characterize most speeches by American presidential candidates. But it's complex in the underlying issues and in the challenges Obama is laying out. He didn't choose the easy route, that's for sure. He could've repudiated Wright, distanced himself from the church, and gone out of his way to appeal to white voters while hoping he didn't alienate many black voters. But instead he said, in essence, "Not only do I not repudiate Wright as a man, but he's as close to me as my own grandmother," while making clear that he found many of Wright's views repugnant. It was bold, and he pulled it off. He also pointed out that Wright's anger is an anger worth understanding, and segued from that politically risky discussion into the passage that is, along with the passage about his grandmother, the rhetorical centerpiece of the speech:
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. 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. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

This is brilliant. He takes the Wright issue, which was supposed to racially divisive and hurtful to his chances among white voters, and turns it in to something that middle- and lower-class white voters can understand and sympathize with. He takes that even further by pointing out Wright's essential conservatism:
Ironically, this quintessentially American – and yes, conservative – notion of self-help found frequent expression in Reverend Wright’s sermons. But what my former pastor too often failed to understand is that embarking on a program of self-help also requires a belief that society can change.

The reactions to the speech as a whole have been almost overwhelmingly positive in the liberal and conservative blogospheres, save for some crusty Cornerites like Derb and KLo who would gripe no matter what Obama said. You can almost sense people exhaling and thinking, "Alright, let's move on." Obama did exactly what he needed to do with this speech. Whether it will resonate with middle America, I don't know. But I'm glad this all happened in March, because November is a long way away.

If I have time later, I might gather up a sampling of the blogger reax. For now I just want to take issue with David Kurtz here:
The text is one thing. Delivery is another. And Obama doesn't seem to have his A game today.

Viewers who were expecting Obama's usual soaring rhetoric might have been disappointed. But that was very much necessary, and Obama played it exactly right: it was a dispassionate, candid discussion of race, religion and politics, which you don't often find from people of any race, creed or clique. It was a refreshing, heartening speech. And it was a great counterbalance to the rage and rhetoric of Wright.

Video highlights here.

Full transcript here.

Full video here:

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