obama’s speech

Video and text here.

It was a risk (more on that in a sec) politically but I think in terms of the ideas it was who he is.  Having read both Dreams of my Father and Audacity of Hope the style is in keeping with those two.

From the first, deeply personal stories of conflict and conflicted people.  Of love and bigotry, good people who say and do bad things.  It is one of the most nuanced pieces on race I have ever read–certainly the most nuanced by a politician.

From the second, following the astute analysis of Michael Tomasky, the similar format to the book.

Obama always starts saying what both parties think about X subject (in this case race).  Then he basically gets to saying he agrees with the liberals but that the conservatives have a point or two in their favor and regardless are not bad people, not evil.

The conflict story personally involves the line that I’ve seen quoted the most so far about how he could not disown Jeremiah Wright anymore than he could disown his grandmother who loved him and experienced waves of fear in her body when a black man passed her on the street.

The point about the conservatives have in their column in this speech was the reference to legitimate ethnic white urban anger over school busing, aspects of affirmative action, and the fear of being labeled racists.

On the political front, I agree with the following from James Carney in Time (italics in original):

Obama’s speech was profound, one of the most remarkable by a major public figure in decades. One question — perhaps the question —is whether its sheer audacity makes for good political strategy. By confronting the Wright controversy head-on, Obama ensured that it would drive the narrative about his campaign, and his race against Hillary Clinton, for days and perhaps weeks to come. He and his advisers no doubt calculated that nothing they could do would change that fact. But if one of the appeals of Obama’s candidacy has been the promise of a post-racial politics, how will voters respond to a speech acknowledging that the future is not now, that race still divides us?

Obama is taking a substantial risk. He is counting on voters to hear and accept nuance in an arena that almost always seems to reward simplicity over complexity. He is asking something from Americans rather than just promising things to them — another formulation long out of vogue. “For we have a choice in this country,” he said. “We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle — as we did in the O.J. trial — or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina, or as fodder for the nightly news … We can do that,” he goes on to say. “But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction … And nothing will change. That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, ‘Not this time.'”

Usually when politicians pose those kinds of either/or options to an audience, the choice is deliberately devoid of real tension. Either we move forward or fall backward, either we let the economy falter or we help it grow, either we succumb to our enemies or we defeat them — the choice is up to you, America! Obama’s either/or formulation is not nearly so banal. Explicitly asking Americans to grapple with racial divisions, and then transcend them — that’s a bold request. Will they comply? Obama’s presidential hopes depend on it.

I’m not the audience he is trying to convince, so I have no idea how this will play.

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Published in: on March 18, 2008 at 1:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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